Trump strategist Bannon’s influence rattles Congress

Nancy Benac and Jill Colvin
Associated Press

Washington — Whether President Donald Trump is honoring his defense secretary, addressing reporters with the British prime minister or talking to a foreign leader in the Oval Office, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is never far away.

It is a mark of Bannon’s extraordinary sway in the Trump White House that a man who has spoken so little in public over the past two weeks is getting so much credit — and blame — for what’s going on.

Bannon, senior White House adviser Stephen Miller, and national security adviser Michael Flynn found themselves under intense scrutiny after several news outlets, including the Associated Press, reported they led internal White House efforts to craft an executive order that “temporarily” banned individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries and all refugees from entering the United States, and a memorandum adding Bannon to the National Security Council while possibly downgrading the roles of the national intelligence director and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

Bannon, a shaggy-haired agitator-turned-insider eager to make a lasting mark on Washington, was also a strong advocate for the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, according to a person who spoke with him recently. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Bannon’s early moves to consolidate power haven’t come without pushback.

In a phone call Monday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon asked the White House to take a back seat in cleaning up confusion caused by the chaotic rollout of the immigration order, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about internal government discussions.

Still, the extent of Bannon’s influence was underscored by Trump’s striking decision over the weekend to add Bannon’s name to the roster of the National Security Council, not typically the province of political advisers.

“Steve’s the main ideological mover of the administration. He’s the chief ideological officer and he has a strong point of view,” said Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a friend of the president. “I think the bond is their world view.”

Rarely seen or heard during Trump’s campaign, the 64-year-old Bannon is now a fixture.

If Trump is moving quickly to overthrow the established order, Bannon is the one fomenting rebellion.

If White House chief of staff Reince Priebus is there to maintain order and focus, Bannon is there to wage war.

“He wants to be the intellectual, strategist bomb-thrower,” says former House Speaker and informal Trump adviser Newt Gingrich, who sees Bannon as the perfect ally to the president in disrupting the status quo. “He does not want to be the guy who makes the trains run on time.”

As Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, Bannon had a hand in crafting the president’s inaugural address and in selecting his Cabinet. He’s bringing in aides from the conservative Breitbart media empire where he ruled before Trump tapped him to direct his campaign.

Trump’s move to add Bannon to the National Security Council has drawn howls from Democrats and even some Republicans. Bernie Sanders called it “dangerous and unprecedented.” Republican Sen. John McCain called it a “radical departure” from recent history.

“Congress is beginning to wonder what is going on,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “When you look at Bannon’s history, I think people are concerned.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker was not informed late last week before Trump signed the immigration order, telling Roll Call newspaper he was “certainly, you know, somewhat surprised when it came out.”

The Tennessee Republican, who has contacts in the Trump inner circle after receiving consideration to be secretary of state, described himself as “very surprised with the lack of clarity relative to how it impacted people.”

And Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday that House GOP leaders were not a part of crafting the refugee directive.

“As you know, we weren’t involved in this,” Ryan said. “We were briefed on it, the contents of it, as it was being rolled out” — but not before, he added.

Former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, who introduced Trump to Bannon in 2011, says the two got to know each other as Trump appeared on Bannon’s Breitbart radio show over the ensuing years.

“They believe in each other’s agendas, which is why they have grown so close,” says Bossie.

Bannon took over Breitbart News after the sudden death of its founder in 2012 left people wondering what would become of the website. By then, the former U.S. Navy officer and Harvard MBA had left behind Goldman Sachs and investment banking, capitalized on an entertainment deal that left him with a share of “Seinfeld” royalties, founded an institute to ferret out government corruption and created a number of his own films, including paeans to Sarah Palin, the tea party movement and Ronald Reagan.

Under Bannon’s guidance, Breitbart grew into one the right’s most powerful voices. Critics, however, accused Bannon of allowing the website to become a platform for white nationalist sentiments — a charge Bannon has denied.

His politics appear to skew closer to European, right-wing views than the typical American conservative agenda. He’s described himself as an “economic nationalist” and has long advocated for closing off the nation’s borders. We’re in the midst of an “outright war,” he’s said, “between “jihadist Islamic fascism” and the “Judeo-Christian West.”

Critics see more self-interest than devotion to conservatism in Bannon’s history.

“He’s really good at ingratiating himself to prominent people,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who’s now a Bannon critic. After Breitbart died, adds Shapiro, Bannon began using the website to promote Trump — “and then he was able to use that to enter into the halls of power.”

CQ-Roll Call contributed.