WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump excommunicated his onetime chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, from his circle Wednesday, ending for now a partnership of convenience that transformed U.S. politics while raising questions about the future of the nationalist-populist movement they cultivated together.
The rupture came after Bannon was quoted in a new book disparaging the president’s children, asserting that Donald Trump Jr. had been “treasonous” in meeting with Russians and calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” Trump, described by his spokeswoman as “furious, disgusted,” fired back by saying that Bannon had “lost his mind.”
In a written statement, the president excoriated Bannon as a self-promoting exaggerator who had “very little to do with our historic victory” in the 2016 presidential election and was “only in it for himself.” Rather than representing Trump’s hard-core political base or supporting his agenda to “make America great again,” Bannon was “simply seeking to burn it all down,” the president said.
While Trump had remained in touch with Bannon after pushing him out of the White House last summer, the two now appear to have reached a breaking point. “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
The schism, assuming it lasts — and with Trump, nothing is ever certain — could test whether he or Bannon has more resonance with the conservative base that has sustained the president through a tumultuous tenure marked by low poll numbers. Bannon’s Breitbart News has been a key weapon in Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party.
Cheering the breakup Wednesday were establishment Republicans who resent Bannon’s bomb-throwing style and vows to wage war on incumbent lawmakers in this year’s party primaries. Senate Republicans could barely contain their glee as they redistributed Trump’s statement blasting Bannon with the note “in case you missed it” and a smiling face symbol. By afternoon, candidates in the handful of races in which Bannon has made endorsements faced pressure to disavow his remarks about the president’s son.
At the White House on Wednesday morning, aides who had kept a watchful eye on Bannon’s efforts to make himself a kingmaker saw an opening to finally rid themselves of him. They encouraged the president to hit back publicly, and Trump went through at least three drafts of a statement with his communications director, Hope Hicks, and other aides before finally sending out a final version unlike any issued by a president against a top adviser in modern times.
“Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was,” Trump said in the statement. “It is the only thing he does well. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books.”
Bannon declined to comment Wednesday. But people close to him said that he believed that the president would eventually come around because he would need help with his base at a moment when Trump’s own political muscle appeared to be on the wane. His Breitbart site did not return fire against Trump on Wednesday.
The president was responding to comments attributed to Bannon in a new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff. The forthcoming book was obtained by The Guardian, which first reported Bannon’s remarks, and New York magazine then posted an excerpt. A copy of the book was later obtained by The New York Times.
In the book, Bannon was quoted suggesting that Donald Trump Jr.; Jared Kushner, his brother-in-law; and Paul Manafort, then the campaign chairman, had been “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for meeting with Russians offering incriminating information on Hillary Clinton during a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor — with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers,” Bannon said after The New York Times revealed the meeting in July 2017, according to Wolff’s book.
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” Bannon continued, according to the book.
He also said that the chance that Trump Jr. did not introduce the Russians to his father “is zero,” a supposition rather than an assertion but one that would contradict the president’s insistence that he knew nothing about the meeting at the time.
According to Wolff, Bannon also predicted that a special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any coordination with Trump aides would ultimately center on money laundering, an assessment that could lend credibility to an investigation the president has repeatedly called a witch hunt.
“They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” Bannon was quoted as saying.
Trump Jr. did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But he jabbed at Bannon on Twitter on Wednesday when he reposted a message noting that Alabama now had a Democratic senator:
Thanks Steve. Keep up the great work. https://t.co/J9O8CUfJAD
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 3, 2018
Bannon helped propel Roy S. Moore to the Republican nomination in Alabama and then stuck by him after the candidate was accused of sexual misconduct with several young women as young as 14. At Bannon’s urging, Trump decided to endorse Moore even after the allegations surfaced, only to be embarrassed when the Democrat, Doug Jones, won the election last year in a heavily Republican state that had not sent a Democrat to the Senate in a quarter-century.
The Alabama debacle soured the relationship between the president and Bannon, and Trump grew even more upset about an interview Bannon gave to Vanity Fair late last year that painted a poor picture of Kushner, criticizing his meetings with Russians during the presidential transition.
During his Christmas break at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump stewed over what to say, consulting with advisers and relatives about whether he should respond, according to three advisers. Ultimately, the president remained silent as aides cautioned against drawing more attention to Bannon’s remarks. But accusing the president’s eldest son of treason crossed the line.
“Going after the president’s son in an absolutely outrageous and unprecedented way is probably not the best way to curry favor with anybody,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. In a statement, she called the book “trashy tabloid fiction.”
The book presents Trump as an ill-informed and thoroughly unserious candidate and president, engaged mainly in satisfying his own ego and presiding over a dysfunctional White House. It reports that early in the 2016 campaign, one aide, Sam Nunberg, was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” it quotes Nunberg as saying, “before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”
The book quotes an email from an unnamed White House aide offering a harsh assessment of Trump’s operation: “It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”
The book also asserts that Trump’s advisers and associates deride him in private, calling him an “idiot,” a “dope” or “dumb as” dirt. Thomas J. Barrack, a friend and adviser to Trump, was quoted telling a friend that the president is “not only crazy, he’s stupid.”
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Barrack said this account was “totally false.” Barrack added, “It’s clear to anyone who knows me that those aren’t my words and inconsistent with anything I’ve ever said.” He said that Wolff never ran that quotation by him to ask if it was accurate.
A longtime media columnist and author, Wolff brings a high profile and years of experience but sometimes mixed reviews to the task of chronicling Trump’s White House. Interview subjects have complained in the past that he took comments meant to be off the record and used them. In a 2004 profile, Michelle Cottle wrote that “the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.”
Wolff clearly benefited from close cooperation from Bannon and the book is infused with his views. He was frequently seen in Bannon’s office while the Breitbart chairman was working in the White House. According to Sanders, Wolff spoke with the president just once, for five to seven minutes, in the first month of the administration, when Trump called Wolff to thank him for his criticism of a Times article that the president did not like.