After weeks of speculation about his future, Trump White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has broken free of his self-imposed exile, unloading a torrent of Scaramucci-esque comments to none other than Robert Kuttner - the editor of The American Prospect, a progressive publication (the cover lines on whose first two issues after Trump’s election were “Resisting Trump” and “Containing Trump."
Kuttner sets the surprising scene...
Trump’s embattled strategist phones me, unbidden, to opine on China, Korea, and his enemies in the administration...
Needless to say, I was a little stunned to get an email from Bannon’s assistant midday Tuesday, just as all hell was breaking loose once again about Charlottesville, saying that Bannon wished to meet with me.
But unload Bannon did:
He began with China...
“We’re at economic war with China,” he added. “It’s in all their literature. They’re not shy about saying what they’re doing. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path.”
Bannon said he might consider a deal in which China got North Korea to freeze its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula, but such a deal seemed remote. Given that China is not likely to do much more on North Korea, and that the logic of mutually assured destruction was its own source of restraint, Bannon saw no reason not to proceed with tough trade sanctions against China.
“To me,” Bannon said, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we're five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we'll never be able to recover.”
Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said of Korea:
"On Korea, [China's] just tapping us along. It’s just a sideshow."
“There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it.
Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
Bannon went on to describe his battle inside the administration to take a harder line on China trade, and not to fall into a trap of wishful thinking in which complaints against China’s trade practices now had to take a backseat to the hope that China, as honest broker, would help restrain Kim.
Bannon’s plan of attack includes: a complaint under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act against Chinese coercion of technology transfers from American corporations doing business there, and follow-up complaints against steel and aluminum dumping.
“We’re going to run the tables on these guys. We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re in an economic war and they’re crushing us.”
With regard his internal adversaries, at the departments of State and Defense, who think the United States can enlist Beijing’s aid on the North Korean standoff, and at Treasury and the National Economic Council who don’t want to mess with the trading system, Bannon was ever harsher...
“Oh, they’re wetting themselves,” he said, explaining that the Section 301 complaint, which was put on hold when the war of threats with North Korea broke out, was shelved only temporarily, and will be revived in three weeks. As for other cabinet departments, Bannon has big plans to marginalize their influence.
“That’s a fight I fight every day here,” he said. “We’re still fighting. There’s Treasury and [National Economic Council chair] Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying.”
“We gotta do this. The president’s default position is to do it, but the apparatus is going crazy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s like, every day.”
Bannon dismissed the far-right as irrelevant:
“Ethno-nationalism—it's losers. It's a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”
“These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.
And finally, Bannon scoffed at The Democrats...
“...the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Bannon going down with a fight or a massive effort to distract from the carnage of the last few days? You decide.