By Robert Costa and John Wagner,
President Trump’s most unconventional senior adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, may have left the White House, but the political turbulence that has characterized the first seven months of Trump’s presidency doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
The tenure and departure of Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and champion of his nationalist impulses, exposed deep fissures in the Trump-era Republican Party, within the White House and beyond.
Those differences are still harming Trump’s effectiveness as he tries to kick-start a sputtering legislative agenda at a time when relationships with Republican congressional leaders are seriously frayed — largely because of the president’s behavior, including his response to hate-fueled deadly violence in Charlottesville last weekend.
While Bannon’s ouster was the latest move by new Chief of Staff John F. Kelly to bring a greater sense of normalcy to the White House, even some of Trump’s allies question how likely that is to take hold, particularly under a president who relishes changing the national conversation with a provocative tweet — a practice Kelly has not been able to curb.
Trump — nearing the end of a working vacation at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort — has made a habit of continuing to solicit advice from former staffers, often through late-night calls when he is no longer under the watchful eye of Kelly. Bannon also has made clear since he left Friday that he is going to use Breitbart News, the pugilistic conservative website, to try to advance his agenda from outside the White House.
In an interview in Washington on Saturday, Bannon warned Republican leaders to enthusiastically support Trump’s priorities on taxes, trade and funding a massive border wall — or risk the wrath of the president’s base, including Breitbart, to which Bannon returned Friday as executive chairman.
“If the Republican Party on Capitol Hill gets behind the president on his plans and not theirs, it will all be sweetness and light, be one big happy family,” Bannon said.
[After Charlottesville, Republicans remain stymied over what to do about Trump]
But Bannon added with a smile that he does not expect “sweetness” anytime soon — and described the turbulent political moment in the Republican Party and the country as a necessary battle over Trump’s priorities.
“No administration in history has been so divided among itself about the direction about where it should go,” Bannon said, adding that Trump’s base is frustrated by a congressional agenda that has dovetailed more with traditional Republican priorities than the agenda Trump championed.
In a pair of tweets on Saturday, the president wished Bannon well and thanked him for his service.
“He came to the campaign during my run against Crooked Hillary Clinton — it was great!” Trump said in the first, referring to Bannon’s role during the general election.
Several hours later, Trump predicted Bannon would be “a tough and smart new voice at @BreitbartNews . . . maybe even better than ever before,” adding: “Fake News needs the competition!”
Trump and Bannon had not yet spoken by phone as of early Saturday, according to people close to both men. It was not clear who had been reaching out to whom, the people said. Bannon spent the day in Washington meeting with friends and allies, and talking with Breitbart writers and executives, according to people close to him.
Several friends and former co-workers said that they expect Bannon to use the platform to attack his political opponents, including those he has derided as “globalists” and Democrats inside the White House.
“I think Steve is going to be more effective on the outside,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a longtime friend of Bannon. “On the outside, if you are well-funded and you are feared and you have a platform, you are going to be a power player. Steve has all of that in spades.”
Trump and Bannon associates also expect Bannon to continue to have Trump’s ear, as has been the case with some other fired staffers such as Corey Lewandowksi, Trump’s first campaign manager, who periodically shows up at the White House.
“With Donald Trump, once he likes you, you’re either in his inner orbit, or you’re in his outer orbit,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. “You never leave altogether.”
In a White House that has had competing power centers, some Trump confidants argued that Bannon’s removal was necessary to bring a more regimented system to the White House, as Kelly has sought. They argued that with Bannon, who had a reputation of trying to undermine colleagues with more establishment views, this made particular sense.
[Trump, first lady to skip Kennedy Center Honors over concerns of ‘political distraction’]
“I think it raises the morale of staffers and brings more of a sense of normalcy to the White House on a day-to-day basis,” said one Republican strategist close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more candidly. “You don’t have such an unorthodox staffer breathing down people’s necks and creating tension every day.”
“What it does not do is remove the person who’s creating the most drama in the White House, and that’s Donald Trump,” the strategist added. “He’s going to continue to do what he’s going to do.”
The coming weeks should bring no shortage of drama.
Fallout is continuing from Trump’s remarks on Charlottesville, in which he blamed “both sides” for the violence and said some “fine people” marched alongside the neo-Nazis and white supremacists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. The investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia also continue.
And next month, Congress returns to a full set of challenges, including legislation to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. If Trump and lawmakers become paralyzed by the task, they could spark an international crisis.
Trump also wants Congress to try to resurrect health-care legislation and take up tax reform, another shared priority but one also rife with intraparty division. He is also seeking funding for his marquee campaign promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
On most of these issues, there is no evident strategy among Republicans on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue for bridging divisions and bringing Trump and congressional Republicans together.
“The reality of it is that even if there were no issues inside the White House, you still have an underlying divide in the Republican Party about how we’ll approach some of these issues,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “To me, that’s the most disheartening part of this.”
While Bannon’s influence has been evident on some Trump policies — including trade, immigration and a decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord — he was much less a presence on health care, the issue that has most come to symbolize GOP dysfunction at a time when the party controls the presidency and both chambers of Congress.
In recent weeks, Trump has grown increasingly unhappy with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and rarely mentions House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in private conversations, blaming both for his legislative troubles, according to two people who have spoken with Trump.
On Friday, a flurry of bravado-filled interviews with Bannon appeared on various websites, including one in which he said he felt as if “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons” and was prepared to “crush the opposition.”
Advisers to senior congressional Republicans were taken aback that none of the combative language was countered by the White House.
“They just sat out there,” said one Republican aide. “That told me everything about whether the White House actually cares about making clear it’s on our side.”
Other Republican aides pointed out that there were other consequential openings on the staff beyond Bannon. While Bannon has been close to the conservative House Freedom Caucus, it was former chief of staff Reince Priebus and outgoing press secretary Sean Spicer who had deep friendships in the party going back to their days at the Republican National Committee.
Ever since Priebus left, many Republican officials have found it harder to engage the White House and to feel assured that the administration “understands the language of Republicans,” as one veteran Republican operative described the dynamic.
[The Fix: Where Republican senators stand on Trump’s views]
Bannon said he sees the roiling feuds inside the West Wing and in the GOP leadership ranks as somewhat but not entirely distinct from broader national divisions.
“The tensions in the White House are slightly different than the tensions in the country. It’s still a divided country. Fifty percent of the people did not support President Trump. Most of those people do not support his policies in any way, shape or form,” Bannon said.
Bannon said both Republicans and Democrats will need to pay close attention to the anxiety among many working people in the country over economic opportunity and national identity, even as they work to settle their turf fights in Washington.
The showdown in a special Senate race in Alabama offers a harbinger of the discord facing the GOP in 2018.
In a Sept. 26 primary runoff, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), an ally of Senate GOP leaders, has been endorsed by Trump but is disliked by many right-wing leaders, including Breitbart and talk-radio hosts such as Laura Ingraham.
Strange faces Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice and longtime favorite of conservatives for his hard-line stands on same-sex marriage and allowing the Ten Commandants to be displayed in public.
Rather than rally behind Strange, several conservative leaders said privately Saturday that they expect their supporters to get behind Moore as a way of sending a signal to Trump that while they are with him philosophically, they will not follow his decisions blindly ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who finished third in last week’s Senate vote and did not make the runoff, acknowledged that many conservatives are urging him to get behind Moore to stop Strange and rattle GOP leaders.
“Have I made a decision? No, I have not,” Brooks said coyly in an interview. “But it looks like the establishment and Washington swamp have taken control of the White House with Bannon’s departure and with Luther Strange.”
Wagner reported from Bedminster, N.J. Paige Winfield Cunningham contributed to this report.
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