Reports of Steve Bannon’s death were greatly exaggerated. Just a few weeks ago, President Trump’s chief political adviser and the most controversial figure in the West Wing was considered a spent force. Some reports said he was going to resign. Others predicted Trump was about to fire him. “Bannon is on his way out,” a person close to Bannon, who worked on the Trump campaign, predicted to me last month. “He’ll probably go back to Breitbart or do something with the Mercers”—the billionaire political donors who have funded Breitbart and several of Bannon’s other political projects—“but I think it’s sort of a fait accompli at this point, because of the infighting.”
Trump himself strongly suggested, in mid-April, that Bannon’s White House service was approaching its end. He told the Wall Street Journal that Bannon was simply “a guy who works for me.” When the New York Post asked Trump if he “still has confidence in Bannon,” Trump declined to say yes. “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” the President told the newspaper. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist, and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
The roots of Bannon’s alleged demise were the long-running battle he was waging with the so-called “globalist” faction in the White House, led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kusher. For the past two years, one rule has defined Trumpland: if you cross Kushner or his wife, Ivanka Trump, you get fired. That’s how Bannon got his job in the first place. Kushner ousted Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who was replaced by Paul Manafort. Eventually, Manafort lost Kushner’s confidence and was replaced by the team of Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, who were strongly backed by the Mercers. “When Corey was leaking bad stuff about Jared: bye, bye, Corey Lewandowski,” the Trump adviser said. “So Steve is leaking bad stuff about Jared: bye, bye, Steve Bannon.”
Earlier this spring, when the press was filled with accounts of Bannon’s looming dismissal, other Trump advisers noted that the stories were overblown. “Everyone is saying, ‘Oh, there’s been a shift, Bannon is on his way out,’ ” a Republican close to the White House told me at the time, referring sarcastically to the rumors. “No, he’s not. Bannon is still there. And he’s still the main adviser to the President of the United States. And I believe that there’s always going to be this fight between these different wings of really different philosophies for him. And that’s how the President wants it.”
More recently, there have been nearly weekly reports of a dramatic White House shakeup. Trump’s senior advisers—people like Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Conway, and Bannon—are routinely described as being on their way out. Much of this information comes from Trump advisers in competing factions, inside and outside the White House, who are trying to push rivals to the exits. Reporting on Trump’s inner circle is akin to writing dispatches from inside a hall of mirrors. Aides regularly lie, distort, and feed journalists misinformation. “It’s easier to understand the papal elections than to understand these fucking nut cases,” the Trump adviser who believed Bannon would soon be fired said.
Two important things changed since the “Bannon is dead” narrative took hold, in April. The first is the Russia investigation. So far, Bannon has not been connected to the investigation. He joined the campaign after Carter Page and Roger Stone, two early Trump campaign advisers caught up in the probe, left, and right before Manafort, who is a major focus of the F.B.I. investigation, resigned. Bannon is close to Michael Flynn—Trump’s former national-security adviser and the person who so far seems to be in the most legal jeopardy—but no reports have emerged that he was involved in Flynn’s meetings with the Russians.
That’s not the case for Kushner. Just as Bannon seemed to reach a low point in his relationship with Trump, Kushner’s role in the Russia probe emerged as the most important piece of White House intrigue. Kushner, though he didn’t have the title, was the Trump campaign’s de-facto campaign manager. He was at Trump’s side through the eras of Stone, Page, and Manafort. And more important, as we learned last Friday, Kushner was working closely with Flynn, during the transition, on his dealings with the Russians, and he has attracted a similar level of interest from the F.B.I.
The second change since Bannon’s low point was that a decision on whether to withdraw from the Paris climate accord finally needed to be made. It was the most important fight pitting Bannon against Jared and Ivanka yet. And it played to all of Bannon’s strengths. The first Trump adviser described Kushner and Ivanka as “more or less Trump’s conscience,” and as “more pragmatic, a little less ideological,” or perhaps “multi-ideological.” Bannon, he said, “speaks to Trump’s id.”
A third Trump adviser, more closely aligned with the Bannon faction, was less charitable. “I think Jared and Ivanka are concerned with being accepted in the right places, they care about what the beautiful people think,” he said. “They care about being well received in the Upper West Side cocktail parties. They view Steve as a man with dirty fingernails, with some weird, crazy, extremist philosophy they don’t think is in the best interest of the President. With all respect to them, they don’t understand how Trump got elected. They don’t understand the forces behind it, they don’t understand the dynamics of the situation, and they certainly don’t understand his appeal and the people who voted for him—they can’t understand it.” He added, “They would like the President to be more like George Bush: one-dimensional, predictable, neocon, mainstream.”
A White House official insisted that Jared and Ivanka’s role in the climate debate has been misunderstood and exaggerated. “Jared believes that it’s a bad deal and that the standards were too high and could hurt the economy. But his preference would have been to stay in,” the White House official said. “Ivanka’s preference was to stay in, but she saw her role as setting up a process inside and outside the government to get information to her father from all sides of the issue.”
Bannonism always thrives in the Trump White House when it can serve as a political accelerant for Trump, who, at the time of his decision on Thursday, was confronting a continued erosion of support from his own base, a widening Russia probe, and a stalled agenda in Congress.
On the climate accord, Kushner and Ivanka hardly had a chance. Bannon’s nationalism, especially when it comes to trade and immigration, is still not widely supported in the Republican establishment and conservative donor class. But when Bannon’s views line up with those of Republican leaders and donors—not to mention those of Trump—he almost always prevails. If Trump had taken the less extreme course on climate advised by his daughter and son-in-law, he would have been breaking a campaign promise and going against the wishes of the entire G.O.P. leadership. In addition, Trump, who knows little about policy, is famously narcissistic, and, easily influenced by personal slights, reportedly was perturbed by a remark from Emmanuel Macron, the French President, who said he intentionally made a show of forcefully shaking Trump’s hand at the recent G7 summit. Trump also reportedly believed that angering Europe was a “secondary benefit” of pulling out of the accord.
Given these circumstances, Bannon could not have had a stronger hand to play in this fight. Still, the climate decision is ultimately the responsibility of Trump himself, not of any single adviser. Trump generally makes decisions that align with Bannon’s views not because he is being manipulated by him but because he agrees with him.
The Republican close to the White House described Bannon and Trump’s relationship metaphorically: “Imagine you have a seventy-something-year-old very strong personality in the family,” the Republican said. “And he’s got his golfing buddy who is his best friend. And they go off golfing and drinking and smoking cigars. What he really wants to do is smoke cigars. But the family is telling him, ‘Smoking cigars is really bad for you and the doctor told you not to do it.’ He’s, like, ‘I know, I know.’ ”
“So when he’s around his family, he’s, like, ‘Look, I’m not smoking cigars!’ And then he goes off with his golf buddy. And guess what they do? They fucking light up cigars, because that’s actually who he is and what he thinks. And Bannon is like his golfing buddy that he goes and smokes cigars with. That’s actually who he is.”