Stephen K. Bannon — the combative architect of the nationalistic strategy that delivered President Trump to the White House — now finds himself losing ground in an internecine battle within the West Wing that pits the “Bannonites” against a growing and powerful faction of centrist financiers led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Less than 100 days into Trump’s chaotic presidency, the White House is splintering over policy issues ranging from taxes to trade. The daily tumult has created an atmosphere of tension and panic around the president, leaving aides fearing for their jobs and cleaving former allies into rivals sniping at one another in the media.
The infighting spilled into full view this week after Trump removed Bannon from the National Security Council’s “principals committee,” a reshuffling that left the president’s chief strategist less fully involved in the administration’s daily national security policy while further empowering Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security adviser.
Bannon, an unkempt iconoclast, has generally chafed at the transition from firebomb campaigning to more modulated governing and for weeks has vented about the possibility of quitting, one person close to him said.
This account of the latest West Wing turmoil comes from interviews with more than 20 White House officials and people close to those in the administration, many of whom requested anonymity to offer candid assessments.
Despite the demotion, Bannon attended Wednesday’s National Security Council meeting, and his friends and allies say the position on the Cabinet-level security committee was always supposed to be temporary — a way for Bannon to keep watch over retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the controversial former national security adviser who was fired in February after he misled Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russian officials.
But the benign explanation for Bannon’s removal belies the growing strife among Bannon, Kushner and Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director. A registered Democrat who previously was president of Goldman Sachs, Cohn is close to Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s oldest daughter and adviser.
Fairly or unfairly, Bannon has borne the blame for several specific policy and political failures, including the scattershot drafting and implementation of Trump’s first travel ban and the strategy and approach to dealing with the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which helped tank the Republican health-care bill by failing to support it.
The clash over control of a pro-Trump outside group also pitted Bannon, Republican super-donor Rebekah Mercer and her father, Robert Mercer, against Kushner.
And Bannon has felt the brunt of general frustrations surrounding the security council. In the early days of the administration, he elevated himself, without Trump’s knowledge, to the principals committee, a move that infuriated the president. Bannon insisted, along with Kushner, on keeping certain staffers over the objection of McMaster.
But the ultimate argument against him, said one person with knowledge of the situation, is that “Bannon isn’t making ‘Dad’ look good.”
As Kushner has expanded his portfolio and consolidated his already vast power — the 36-year-old adviser has been called “the Trump whisperer,” with a direct line to the president — he has surrounded himself with a small group of outsiders who largely hail from the ranks of business and Wall Street. The group includes Dina Powell, an Egyptian-born former Goldman Sachs official who served in George W. Bush’s administration. Both she and Cohn are part of Kushner’s newly announced Office of American Innovation, an internal team devoted to streamlining government.
Bannon and his populist allies view Kushner’s circle with growing suspicion, worrying aloud that the group — whom they dismiss as “the Democrats,” “the New Yorkers” or, simply, “Goldman” — are pushing Trump in a “Democrat Lite” direction. Kushner’s allies, meanwhile, label Bannon’s crowd as “the Bannonites,” “the Nationalists” or “Breitbart,” the name of the incendiary conservative website he previously ran.
Bannon, grousing to friends, has cast the tensions as a confrontation between the nationalists and the liberal Democrats, who he worries are eager to undercut the populist movement that helped lift Trump to victory. Looming over him daily on his office walls are the promises that Trump made during the campaign, which he methodically checks off.
Cohn has met with Democrats on several occasions and appears much more comfortable offering lawmakers olive branches than does Bannon, who during the health-care fight argued in favor of forcing a vote on the doomed bill to establish a public list of Republican traitors.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich cast the disagreements as important and weighty policy debates.
“It’s not about petty soap-opera stuff,” Gingrich said. “Bannon represents a very fundamental change in how we think about economic policy, taking us back to the era from Alexander Hamilton up through the 1920s when we were a much more national economy. Gary represents the New York international worldview and is a very competent and smart guy. There’s a natural tension.
“I think it’s very helpful to have the tension and the arguments,” he added. “I think presidents are much better served if they have different sources of information.”
The president, asked by reporters Thursday on Air Force One if a staff shake-up is looming, said he thought the administration had “already shaken things up.”
“I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency,” Trump said, wrongly referring to the 11 weeks he has been in office.
Some friends of both Bannon and Kushner, who talk daily and still have a cordial rapport, say the tensions are mostly driven by policy.
In February, for instance, a group of former Republican Cabinet secretaries met with Cohn to pitch him on the idea of a carbon tax, arguing it would help reduce fossil fuel emissions while also addressing budget issues. Some left the meeting believing Cohn was open to the idea. Bannon was furious when he caught wind of the proposal, saying the White House was veering too far from Trump’s core nationalist principles as it molded its economic policy.
A meeting last week at the White House at the behest of Kushner and Cohn to discuss health care with Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and one of the architects of President Barack Obama’s health-care bill, was another fault line. The mere existence of the staff-level discussion with Emanuel — who had previously met with Trump three times — raised concerns among conservatives that the president was serious about his threat to work with Democrats after his initial health-care proposal failed.
Bannon, allies said, still has the president’s ear, especially on key issues such as immigration, where he and Trump are in a complete “mind meld.” But the chief strategist has struggled to adjust to the more regimented mores of the White House. One friend said he hates attending meetings, bemoans the need to frequently wear suits, and finds the government bureaucracy stifling. While living in Los Angeles, Bannon would sometimes participate in Breitbart conference calls before showering and in a T-shirt or bathrobe; his D.C. staff would joke about the last time he got a haircut.
Some of those who resent Kushner’s rising power have compared him to Icarus, the youth in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and melted his wings. But because Kushner holds so much clout, many of his rivals fear bad-mouthing him and train their ire on his deputies instead. “When you complain about Gary or Dina, you’re really complaining about Jared and what he’s doing, because you’re not able to complain about Jared around here,” said one senior White House official.
But one administration official warned that Bannon was playing “a dangerous game” because it is “not a smart strategy to go up against the president and his family. That’s a game Steve will never win.”
Patrick J. Caddell, a veteran pollster who advises Breitbart and is friends with Bannon, said that “an outsider administration is vulnerable to these kinds of cracks.”
“Steve is taking the slings and arrows, but I hope Trump understands that the attacks on Bannon are an attempt to undermine Trump,” Caddell said. “That’s the crucial point. Steve is essential to him, the only person who has a clue why the president was elected and why he’s there.”
Regardless, the ongoing drama has taken a toll on West Wing operations, where aides continue to jockey for power and worry about their job security. One senior official pointed to Trump’s interview Wednesday with the New York Times, during which at least five senior White House staffers, as well as Pence, crowded into the Oval Office.
“Why were they there?” asked the official, saying they should have been working on other tasks. “Now the expectation is you have to be in every picture and every meeting.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, dismissed reports of palace intrigue. “There are many serious issues at hand, which the president has been totally focused on, and the only conflicts his advisers are concerned with are those that are impacting the lives and safety of Americans, as well as the citizens of the world,” she said.
Trump, for his part, enjoys a somewhat chaotic management style and so far hasn’t aligned entirely with either camp. Aides say one moment the president will praise Bannon and sound out nationalist themes. The next, he’ll see a headline about “President Bannon” and grimace.
Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.