As special counsel Mueller's probe into Trump's "Russian collusion" allegations expands to include virtually all financial affairs of the president, Trump's own "witch hunt" for the source of White House leaks - so far unsuccessful - is likewise growing, and just weeks after Trump removed one of his two original advisors when he sacked Reince Priebus, overnight Axios' Jonathan Swan reports that Trump has told associates that "he believes Steve Bannon is behind damaging leaks about White House colleagues" putting the chief strategist's job in fresh jeopardy.
On Friday we reported that "first it was Preibus, then Kushner and now General H.R. McMaster: Breitbart has seemingly waged war on many of President Trump's closest advisors over the past several months but it seems that the only person they're actually hurting is their former Executive Chair, Steve Bannon. As Politico notes this morning, whether true or not, every time Breitbart drops a negative article on the White House, all eyes turn to Bannon." And now it's the president that is paying attention.
As Axios adds late on Saturday, unnamed sources in the West Wing "believe Bannon is an instigator of leaks targeting National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster", even though Bannon has told associates he has nothing to do with the campaign against McMaster, which is "a spontaneous effort by the base."
The stories have been driven by Breitbart, where Bannon was executive chairman before joining Trump's presidential campaign as chief executive in August. On Thursday, Trump backed McMaster as "our friend." Additionally, sources close to Trump say he was irritated about Bannon's extensive cooperation with a book by Bloomberg Businessweek's Josh Green, "Devil's Bargain," with a cover that gave Bannon equal billing with Trump. The rise in tensions between the president and his top ideological advisor follows a New York Post interview in April when Trump refused to back Bannon, and declared himself "my own strategist." After that, Bannon lowered his profile, then temporarily redeemed himself as he helped organize the White House response to Robert Mueller.
Fast forward to today when Trump has reportedly told associates "he's fed up with what he sees as self-promotion by Bannon, who did not join the core team this week at the president's golf club in Bedminster, N.J." The recent arrival of Trump's new chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly has only added to the alienation:
Bannon's time with Trump has diminished since the new chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, took over and imposed discipline on the circus around the Oval Office.
But while Trump has been frustrated with Bannon - who survived Jared Kushner's attempt to oust him early on in Trump's administration - in the past, he has never had as easy vehicle for getting rid of him. Now, with Kelly in the picture, that dynamic has changed. As one top aide told Axios, "Kelly can do the dirty work."
According to Axios, Kelly "was initially mystified, and then horrified, when he learned about the relentless campaign against McMaster, coming from Breitbart and others."
Furthermore, while Trump reportedly doesn't believe that Bannon is some kind of puppeteer in charge of conservative media. "That would be overstating Steve's influence," the source said, he wondered why Bannon hasn't raised a finger to stop the hit pieces against McMaster that have run on Breitbart, a publication he used to run.
The source pointed out that when the media began reporting, early in the administration, that Bannon was warring with Reince, the two went to extraordinary lengths to prove their friendship, and Bannon went to extraordinary lengths to shut down the narrative.
in his defense, Bannon - who is philosophically aligned with the President on numerous domestic policy issues - has been on the winning side of a number of internal policy battles, including Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the new aggressive turn against China on trade. On Monday, Trump returns to D.C. to announce he's signing a memo to investigate China for intellectual property theft and other trade abuses against the U.S. Bannon has been pushing hard behind that policy. At the same time, "Bannon has a genuine, deeply-felt policy disagreement with McMaster. Bannon's and McMaster's world views are diametrically opposed, and Bannon believes the globalists pose the greatest internal threat to the Trump presidency, and could send it veering off course with foreign interventions."
That said Bannon's departure is not guaranteed, with the biggest wildcard being how two Republican mega-donors, Bob and Rebekah Mercer, would react if Kelly were to fire Bannon on Trump's behalf. "Given the financial support they've given to Bannon and Breitbart, would they turn against Trump, whom they've also supported?" Another question is how Trump's base would react to Bannon's firing.
The last question is what kind of havoc Bannon could - and would - wreak on the outside, relieved of his West Wing responsibilities? We may soon find out.