White House Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon will be leaving his position Friday. Whether he resigned or was dismissed is not certain, although this is one staff change that is not exactly a bolt from the blue. Bannon’s future at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been the subject of speculation almost since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The shifting loyalties within Trump’s team have become almost too convoluted to explain, but Bannon’s departure will displease many conservatives. Others will see this change as a further streamlining of the chain of command within the president’s inner circle.
Shortly after news media outlets began reporting the move, the White House issued a brief statement. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Friday “White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day. We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”
The New York Times reports that Bannon himself says he had submitted a letter of resignation to the president on August 7. It was already widely known that the Chief Strategist was at odds with several people on the White House staff and other members of the administration.
The catalyst for Bannon’s departure, it seems, was a telephone call he placed Tuesday to Robert Kuttner, a co-founder of The American Prospect. Apparently, Bannon assumed that what he told Kuttner would be ‘off the record, ’ but The Prospect published the conversation, which was more a venting of feelings on several issues. The American Prospect is a liberal publication, but Bannon apparently chose to speak with Kuttner because of the latter’s views on the economic war between the United States and China. In a column published just the day before Bannon’s call, Kuttner analyzed the relationship between the U.S., China, and North Korea. He suggested China has the upper hand and that Trump’s threats against North Korea were folly. “China holds most of the cards,” Kuttner wrote.
During the telephone conversation between the two men, Bannon agreed with Kuttner’s take on the situation. “I’ve followed your writing for years,” Bannon told him, “and I think you and I are in the same boat when it comes to China. You absolutely nailed it.” The Chief Strategist is very much an economics guy who believes that China is probably not more than ten years away from attaining a virtually unassailable upper hand over the United States.
Regarding North Korea, Bannon said, “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.“ This statement echoed what Kuttner himself wrote in his column, the previous day. The comment seemed to completely undercut the president’s recent, strongly-worded threats against North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Bannon may have also crossed the line when he voiced his intention to oust certain individuals at the Department of State. A strong advocate for tough trade and technology measures against China, Bannon saw many senior administration officials as too dovish on the issue. “Oh, they’re wetting themselves,” he told Kuttner, apparently referring to people on the National Economic Council, at the Treasury Department and Department of State.“I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in.”
Bannon might well have been one of the president’s most loyal advisors. In his eyes, there was no problem with the Trump agenda, but there were issues with getting other players within the bureaucracy of the administration on board. “We gotta do this,” He said of efforts to push back harder against Chinese trade and intellectual property transgressions. “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.”
It is hard to imagine that Bannon honestly believed his remarks to The American Prospect would remain private, so one might assume that he had already decided to leave his position. On the other hand, he was talking about strategies that he intended to work on – not something one would say if one had already decided to resign. Perhaps, then, Bannon was gambling that his remarks to Kuttner would bolster his position against his opponents. Certainly, that did not work out as planned.
Many conservatives will see Bannon’s departure as a blow to the Trump agenda, and they may well be proven right. Rumors already abound that Bannon will return to his position at the head of the conservative Breitbart News, from which he would have a platform to influence administration thinking as much as any media organization can. Whether or not that happens, it is a sure bet that we have not heard the last of Stephen Bannon.