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Inside Bannon’s struggle: From ‘shadow president’ to Trump’s marked man

White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, second from left, listens to President Trump’s news conference Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When Stephen K. Bannon reported for work Wednesday, he did not act like a man who had just been publicly humiliated by his boss.

The White House chief strategist cycled in and out of the Oval Office for meetings with President Trump and took a seat in the front row of the East Room for the afternoon visit of NATO’s secretary general, flanked by some of the very advisers with whom he has been feuding.

But for Bannon, the day’s routine obscured the reality that he is a marked man — diminished by weeks of battles with the bloc of centrists led by Trump’s daughter and son-in-law and cut down by the president himself, who belittled Bannon in an interview with the New York Post.

The president’s comments were described by White House officials as a dressing-down and warning shot, though one Bannon friend, reflecting on them Wednesday, likened Bannon to a terminally ill family member who had been moved into hospice care.

The man not long ago dubbed the “shadow president” — with singular influence over Trump’s agenda and the workings of the federal government — is struggling to keep his job with his portfolio reduced and his profile damaged, according to interviews Wednesday with 21 of Trump’s aides, confidants and allies. Some colleagues described Bannon as a stubborn recluse who had failed to build a reservoir of goodwill within the West Wing.

How the Bannon-Kushner feud sums up the Trump administration's inner turmoil (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

“Bannon is a brilliant pirate who has had a huge impact,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter. “But White Houses, in the end, are like the U.S. Navy — corporate structures and very hard on pirates.”

For now, at least, Bannon may survive the turmoil, and he and other White House staffers are striving to be on their best behavior after their infighting earned them a scolding by the president over the weekend, according to the aides and allies, many of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about internal dynamics. Bannon declined to be interviewed.

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But the mercurial president has a long history of turning quickly on subordinates, and the political hit late Tuesday in the New York Post was trademark Trump, using the friendly Manhattan tabloid to publicly debase his chief strategist. The president said Bannon was hardly the Svengali of his caricature, but rather "a good guy" who "was not involved in my campaign until very late."

Bannon's associates were caught off guard by Trump's comments. Some interpreted them as a paternal "love tap" by Trump to assert his own dominance, while others worried they amounted to an indirect firing. Bannon himself was humbled, people close to him said, and his allies scrambled to defend him, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who praised him in an appearance on Laura Ingraham's radio program.

In a second interview, with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Trump referred to Bannon as "a guy who works for me" — and pointedly noted, as he did with the New York Post, that he was his own "strategist," even though chief strategist is Bannon's job title.

Trump also is increasingly embracing more mainstream policy positions championed by daughter Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and their allies, including ascendant National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, instead of Bannon’s brand of combative nationalism.

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Stephen Bannon served on two deployments between 1978 and 1980.(Photo courtesy of the Bannon family)

On Wednesday alone, Trump flipped from Bannon-favored positions on issues such as the Export-Import Bank and Chinese currency ma­nipu­la­tion, alarming some Bannon aides who feared their wing had lost influence with the president.

On Ingraham’s show, Sessions dismissed the suggestion that Bannon’s worldview, which he shares, was being sidelined. “I’m an admirer of Steve Bannon and the Trump family and they’ve been supportive of what we’re doing,” said the attorney general, who in recent days has unveiled tough policies aimed at illegal immigration and drug crimes. “I’ve not felt any pushback against me or on anything I’ve done or advocated.”

Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a close Trump friend who chaired his inaugural committee, spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington meeting with the president and his senior team. He characterized the ideological disagreement between Bannon and others as natural and even healthy.

“The way this president makes decisions is he encourages different points of view from different people, and he curates those and comes up with his own positions,” Barrack said. “The lack of unanimity is just the way this president manages. He is in command and control.”

Trump and his team are rushing to notch accomplishments that they can hail at the 100-day mark later this month and to impose new discipline on a White House that has been riven by disorder and suspicion since Trump took office.

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Justice Neil M. Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court and sworn in this week, upending Senate procedure and marking a significant victory for Trump's conservative base. But the absence of any other major legislative achievement and the public failure of a health-care overhaul has gnawed at the president, and other White House advisers have been swift in assigning partial blame to Bannon, according to Trump staffers and outside allies.

Bannon's effective demotion began last week when he was removed from the National Security Council's principals committee. But his real problems began much earlier. Trump bristled at the media depiction of Bannon as a puppeteer, punctuated by the Feb. 13 Time magazine cover labeling Bannon "The Great Manipulator."

Trump fashions himself as the leading man — the protagonist of every story in which he stars — and was content to have Bannon as his sidekick, but he did not welcome the competition for top billing.

Bannon further imperiled his standing with the president by getting crosswise with Kushner, officials said. The two men were close during last year’s campaign; Kushner came to see Bannon as a wartime consigliere. But in the White House, Bannon went to war with the business leaders Kushner helped recruit to the administration — Cohn and others, including Dina Powell, the senior economic counselor and deputy national security adviser.

Bannon privately derided them as “globalists” and “Democrats,” officials said, even though Powell worked in George W. Bush’s administration and has been called a principled conservative by leading Republican senators.

Bannon’s supporters believe he is an essential conduit between Trump and his nationalist, populist base. The wealthy Mercer family, which has nurtured Bannon’s political rise and infused Trump’s campaign and allied groups with millions of dollars, is closely monitoring Bannon’s falling fortunes. Rebekah Mercer, who directs the family’s political activities, is unnerved and worried about losing her best link to a president her family takes credit for helping get elected but believes Bannon will be able to maintain his influence, people close to the family said.

Ingraham wrote in an email of Bannon: “Of course he didn’t invent the conservative populist ideals that Trump ran on, but he is … a reminder in the West Wing of what the president’s core supporters expect of the administration and the promises that must be fulfilled. I think the president has really keen political instincts — and I have to believe he knows his chances of a successful first term are better with Steve on the inside than on the outside.”

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Other Trump loyalists flatly dismiss the idea that Bannon is the id of the Trump movement, pointing out that Trump has been advocating some of the same populist positions — especially on immigration and trade — for decades and for more than a year on the campaign trail before Bannon’s hiring last summer.

These people argue that a better representative of Trump’s voters inside the White House is Stephen Miller, the senior policy adviser and former Sessions aide who joined the campaign early and helped Trump hone and communicate his ideas. They said Miller has worked closely with Bannon but also has strategically aligned himself with Kushner, who came to see him last year as indispensable at Trump’s side.

As tensions have heightened in recent weeks, the Bannon and Kushner camps have devolved into opposing firing squads. Team Bannon believes the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a show the president watches regularly, are speaking regularly with Kushner and projecting his anti-Bannon sentiments. Kushner allies, meanwhile, finger Bannon as responsible for unflattering stories involving the president’s son-in-law, including those focusing on Kushner’s talks with Russians.

Inside a White House led by a president increasingly hungry to make deals, even with Democrats, Bannon’s dogmatism appears to have weakened him.

“The West Wing is finally appreciating it’s a democracy, not a dictatorship, but the rules are hard to navigate when there is such a high degree of polarization,” said Richard Hohlt, a longtime Republican consultant who has observed seven different presidents since his arrival in Washington. “It becomes difficult in a democracy if you’re going to be all ideological purity, all the time.”

Trump’s three oldest children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric — and Kushner have been frustrated by the impression of chaos inside the White House and feel that their father has not always been served well by his senior staff, according to people with knowledge of their sentiments. The Trump heirs are interested in any changes that might help resuscitate the presidency and preserve the family’s name at a time when they are trying to expand the Trump Organization’s portfolio of hotels.

“The fundamental assessment is that if they want to win the White House in 2020, they’re not going to do it the way they did in 2016, because the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage,” said one well-connected Republican operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s family. “It would be so protectionist, nationalist and backward-looking that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.”

Bannon has borne at least part of the blame for the administration’s problems governing. He was intimately involved in the entry ban, which was twice blocked in federal court, and the failed health-care push especially hurt him. Trump thought Bannon would be able to bring along the House Freedom Caucus — a group of hard-line anti-establishment conservatives — but they helped tank the bill to scale back the Affordable Care Act.

Reince Priebus, the often-embattled chief of staff, is among the aides who feel growing pressure from the president to show that the administration can govern. Priebus has been telling confidants, “I’m not going to have a Memorial Day where the number one headline is ‘Republicans can’t produce a budget’ when everyone else in America can,” according to multiple people with knowledge of his plea.

For Trump, one bright spot was the decision to launch 59 missiles in Syria last week. The president was pleased with the process, overseen by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, that brought together his war cabinet and corralled its expertise in a way that resembled a more traditional White House.

“He’s in the best place that I’ve seen him since the inauguration,” Barrack said. “He’s confident. He thinks he’s found the groove, and with his team too. . . . He looks great. His energy level is off the map. And I think he now feels the commander in chief role.”

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.