It has been about 24 hours since Michael Wolff's new book reported that Stephen K. Bannon accused Donald Trump Jr. of treason, among a number of other brutal quotes. And despite thorough denunciations from the White House, Bannon has yet to dispute any of it. In fact, he seems to be trying to make nice with Trump.
But why? Why would Bannon tell Wolff things that would clearly alienate the president, especially when Bannon said today that “nothing will ever come between us and President Trump and his agenda.” Why risk something, well, coming between you and that agenda?
Here are three theories.
1. Bannon was just spouting off.
It seems unlikely that a man who runs a media company would speak so loosely on the record with a reporter — especially after what happened with Anthony Scaramucci. But he has certainly shown before that he is frustrated with the direction of the White House. He even said upon his firing last year that “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” And Bannon's internal feuding with the “globalists” in the West Wing and even Trump's own family, especially Jared Kushner, has been the subject of plenty of reporting.
Maybe Wolff, who was apparently granted a stunning amount of access in the White House, simply caught Bannon in a vulnerable moment — or five.
2. Bannon is indeed trying to “burn it all down.”
This is the most conspiratorial option on this list — but it's the one to which the White House appears to subscribe.
At the end of Trump's remarkably strong statement against Bannon on Wednesday, he unmistakably accused Bannon of “simply seeking to burn it all down” — a reference to the country that Trump, in contrast, was trying to restore. That choice of words is one that has regularly been associated with Bannon, including by yours truly. Here's what I wrote last month when Bannon insulted Mitt Romney by saying that his children served on Mormon missions rather than in the military (despite Mormons being a small but vocal and devoted part of the GOP base):
Bannon's comments would seem not terribly helpful for Trump and his 2020 campaign. Trump struggled mightily with Mormon voters in 2016, and for a time it seemed as though he might even lose Utah because of the presence of a Mormon Utahn third-party candidate, Evan McMullin. . . .
And even apart from 2020 concerns, Romney is someone Trump may soon have to work with if Romney becomes a senator. In addition, Bannon's comments risk raising Trump's Vietnam deferments, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seemed to raise recently (although he later denied that he was talking specifically about Trump).
Just as Trump's loyalty to the Republican Party has long been highly suspect, so too is Bannon's. There is a difference between being a partisan and being an ideologue, and Bannon is certainly the latter. And just as with Trump, he seems to regard chaos as a means to an end. Exactly what end is that? That's the big question.
But if his goal were truly to burn it all down, you have to wonder why Bannon would try to mend fences with Trump rather than follow through and double down on his comments. As I wrote today, that's the kind of thing that could truly facilitate the burning down of the Trump-led Republican Party.
3. Bannon is trying to distance himself from the Russia probe.
If Bannon does think Trump Jr. committed treason — or something short of that — perhaps he simply wants to put himself as far as possible from how the broader Russia investigation might view that meeting with a Russian lawyer. Bannon has repeatedly warned Trump about what the probe might mean for his presidency, with some of his pleas apparently falling on deaf ears.
Bannon's name has been conspicuously missing from many of the developments in the Russia probe, as Politico's Darren Samuelsohn recently reported, but he's expected to be a key witness given his high-ranking roles on the Trump campaign and in the Trump White House.