If you’re a White House staffer in the Trump administration, there will probably come a time when some of your competitors or rivals in the workplace decide to leak incendiary and off-putting details to the press about your job performance or your relationship with the boss. It seems like every other week, some senior official in the West Wing is the proverbial piñata getting hit with a large metal rod from all directions. It’s part of what makes the comings and goings of the Trump administration such an interesting story to cover — there is so much drama, self-righteous and narcissistic backstabbing and so many personality clashes that it sometimes feels like the country is going through a modern-day version off the Greek play “Oedipus Rex.”
For the last several weeks, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was the subject of derision from the far-right media. Whether the campaign was orchestrated by chief political strategist Steve Bannon or is a grassroots response from the likes of Breitbart & Co. is difficult to know with certainty (Bannon has claimed repeatedly that he has nothing to do with the anti-McMaster leaks). But whoever is pushing out this narrative, it has actually been counterproductive to the nationalist camp in Trump world. Bannon’s relationship with Trump, so symbiotic during the campaign, is now under such significant stress that it may be too late to fix it.
Is it only a matter of time before Steve Bannon gets fired or is asked to resign, much like Michael Flynn, Mike Dubke, James Comey, Derek Harvey, Reince Priebus and several other National Security Council officials? Bannon is nothing but a survivor; he’s been on the firing range before and exhibited enough dexterity to escape without any life-threatening wounds. But the white supremacist, white nationalist, neo-Nazi demonstration-turned-crime scene last weekend has produced a situation for the former Breitbart chairman that even his wily political skills may not be able to alleviate.
A report that Bannon cautioned President Trump to be careful in denouncing the violence in Charlottesville for fear of angering his base of far-right, populist supporters has riled up those in Washington who were already disturbed that Trump would bring somebody like Bannon into the West Wing. The Republican political establishment never liked Bannon to begin with, viewing him as a disrupter, an enabler of alt-right politics at best and its ringleader at worse. If last weekend’s violence in Virginia ends up being the the nail in the coffin for Bannon’s White House career, so much the better in the eyes of many GOP lawmakers, donors, and operators.
What Trump needs to ask himself, however, is whether the cost of easing Bannon out will overpower the benefits of getting rid of him. Is firing somebody who has fought with pretty much everybody (Priebus, Jared Kushner, and McMaster to name a few) and who is viewed by the Washington establishment as a borderline racist worth the consequences of making a lot of loud-mouthed, nationalistic social media denizens pissed off? Breitbart remains a very popular forum for the president’s die-hard supporters, but if Bannon is sacrificed to the wolves or is universally seen by the alt-right as a martyr to the cause, it could just as quickly become a platform for anti-Trump stories. With an approval rating that is already in the tank, it may not be smart for Trump to risk whatever support he has from his base in order to get rid of someone who is causing the West Wing staff heartburn.
If Trump is serious about escorting Bannon off the White House grounds, he needs to handle the situation delicately. Because if the far-right faction in the media interprets Bannon’s ouster as Trump caving to the mainstream, his popularity will take a hit.