The Awkward Aftermath of the Trump-Bannon Divorce

 David Catanese
  7th-Jan-2018

President Donald Trump's public divorce from his former chief strategist Steve Bannon on Wednesday was everything one would expect from the demise of such a combustible duo: explosive, damning and suffused with intrigue.

After Bannon was quoted in a forthcoming book suggesting Trump's family members and campaign chairman Paul Manafort acted in a "treasonous" or "unpatriotic" matter by holding a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign, the president fired back in an acerbic four-paragraph statement, saying Bannon had "lost his mind."

The question now for the political provocateur who is Trump's former campaign chairman and the current head of Breitbart News: Has he lost his clout?

"There are people who are ideological allies," a White House staffer says when asked about Bannon's future. "But in terms of actual allies, no. This was the final straw. Bannon just ended whatever was left of his relationship with the president."

Bannon's reputation was bruised following last month's special Senate election in Alabama, in which he antagonized the Republican Party by doggedly backing Roy Moore despite disturbing accusations of sexual harassment and assault lodged against the candidate. Moore lost what was once considered an unloseable race to Democrat Doug Jones, who was sworn in Wednesday, capping an outcome Trump blamed on Bannon.

Despite his blatant miscalculation and the animosity he stirred among traditional Republicans, Bannon's enduring influence was that he purportedly had a direct line to Trump – the White House confirmed they spoke by phone last month – and could help mold the president's thoughts on policy and political strategy.

Now, that line appears lacerated.

"Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn't as easy as I make it look," Trump said in the statement. "Steve doesn't represent my base – he's only in it for himself."

The extraordinary breakup between the two larger-than-life comrades led to immediate fallout across the Republican Party. GOP leadership rejoiced at Bannon's fall from grace, with allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reveling in and sharing the president's takedown.

Bannon-blessed candidates, meanwhile, were suddenly caught in an uncomfortable vice between Bannon and the president.

In West Virginia, Rep. Evan Jenkins – a Senate candidate running in a Republican primary for the opportunity to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin – called on opponent Patrick Morrisey, the state's attorney general, to renounce Bannon.

"After Steve Bannon's vicious attacks on President Trump and his family, Patrick Morrisey should immediately disavow Bannon's support," Jenkins said in a statement. "If he refuses, West Virginians will know that what President Trump said of Bannon today is also true of Morrisey: 'He is only in it for himself.'"

A spokeswoman for Morrisey was quick to note that the candidate "does not support these attacks on Pres. Trump and his family."

In Wisconsin, the campaign of GOP Senate hopeful Leah Vukmir took a similar approach, calling on primary foe Kevin Nicholson to repudiate Bannon's backing.

"It was incredibly disappointing to learn of these vicious attacks by Steve Bannon against the president and his family," Vukmir campaign manager Jess Ward said.

Other Republican Senate candidates with Bannon's support who could face pressure to respond are Josh Hawley in Missouri, Kelli Ward in Arizona and Matt Rosendale in Montana.

And with Trump severing his relationship with Bannon in such dramatic fashion, GOP campaigns will need to calculate whether Bannon's blessing is worth much at all. Suddenly, the Bannon brand could carry with it the stigma of a scarlet letter. Depending on what resources he brings to bear on a candidate's behalf, his imprint may not be worth the shirts off his back.

As executive chairman of Breitbart, Bannon still holds sway over an influential website favored by the hard- and alt-right. But even it could see fallout from the feud: Wealthy GOP donor Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, have helped financially support Breitbart, but also have been top supporters of the president and GOP causes.

Robert Mercer announced in November he was selling his stake in the company to his daughters, making it clear that while he occasionally discusses politics with Bannon, he is not always aligned with him. The Trump-Bannon divorce may put the Mercers in an even more uncomfortable situation – one that doesn't necessarily favor Bannon, who has few, if any, remaining allies in the White House.

"When Bannon has lost Breitbart," Donald Trump Jr. tweeted Wednesday, referencing comments on the site, "he's left with ... ummm, nothing."

Bannon did not respond to an email seeking comment, but a source close to him says he has "no regrets and is acting like [this] is a normal news day." When asked if he thinks Bannon would talk with Trump again, the source replied that at the moment, it didn't matter and that they were "focused on the agenda and coverage of it." By Wednesday evening, the top story on the site indeed touted "Massive Support For Trump's Immigration Policies."

When Bannon departed the White House in August, he was seen as freshly unshackled but still a reliable outside ally of the administration. Now he looks like a turncoat out for revenge, fitting the profile of an alluring witness for special counsel Robert Mueller in his probe of potential collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia.

Bannon is directly taking on Trump's family, telling author Michael Wolff the chance Donald Trump Jr. didn't walk Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others involved in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting "up to his father's office on the 26th floor is zero," undercutting the president's denial that he knew about the confab. He's also tarring financial dealings tied to Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as "greasy," saying they'll play a key role in Mueller's probe.

It's additionally been revealed that Bannon privately dubbed Trump a "narcissist" before taking over his campaign, according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed.

Bannon became a media sensation over the last year, with his savvy courting of reporters on background and his discrete distribution of scoopy tibbits – all while maintaining an aura of mystery and subtle brilliance.

But while it's true Trump has often repaired relationships with those he's previously parted ways with – think Roger Stone, Sam Nunberg and Corey Lewandowski – Bannon's infraction is already leading to considerable political jeopardy for the White House, not to mention the potential legal landmines his comments have planted.

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