Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council.
WASHINGTON — For the first 10 weeks of President Trump’s administration, no adviser loomed larger in the public imagination than Stephen K. Bannon, the raw and rumpled former chairman of Breitbart News who considers himself a “virulently anti-establishment” revolutionary out to destroy the “administrative state.”
But behind the scenes, White House officials said, the ideologist who enjoyed the president’s confidence became increasingly embattled as other advisers, including Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, complained about setbacks on health care and immigration. Lately, Bannon has been conspicuously absent from some meetings. And now he has lost his seat at the national security table.
In a move that was widely seen as a sign of changing fortunes, Trump removed Bannon, his chief strategist, from the National Security Council’s Cabinet-level “principals committee” on Wednesday. The shift was orchestrated by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, who insisted on purging a political adviser from the Situation Room where decisions about war and peace are made.
President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, left, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, where he announced that McMaster will be the new national security adviser.
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
Bannon resisted the move, even threatening at one point to quit if it went forward, according to a White House official who, like others, insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Bannon’s camp denied that he had threatened to resign and spent the day spreading the word that the shift was a natural evolution, not a signal of any diminution of his outsized influence.
His allies said privately that Bannon had been put on the principals committee to keep an eye on Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, a retired three-star general who lasted just 24 days before being forced out for misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about what he had discussed with Russia’s ambassador. With Flynn gone, these allies said, there was no need for Bannon to remain, but they noted that he had kept his security clearance.
“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration,” Bannon said in a statement, referring to President Barack Obama’s last national security adviser. “I was put on the NSC with Gen. Flynn to ensure that it was de-operationalized. Gen. McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
Bannon did not explain what he meant by “operationalized” or how his presence on the committee had ensured it would not be.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, left, Senior Adviser to President Donald Trump Jared Kushner, center, and Vice President Mike Pence watch as Trump signs his first executive order in the Oval Office
Either way, it was one more drama in a White House consumed with palace intrigue, where officials jockey for the ear of the president, angle for authority and seek to place blame for political defeats. Even as Bannon lost a national security credential, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, seems to be acting as a shadow secretary of state, visiting Iraq and taking on China, Mexico and Middle East portfolios.
Bannon’s myriad enemies, both inside and outside the White House, celebrated what they saw as a defeat for his brand of firebrand politics.
“He didn’t belong on the principals committee to begin with — doesn’t really belong in the White House at all,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “I hope that this is a sign that McMaster is taking control of the National Security Council.”
Karl Rove, who as senior adviser to President George W. Bush was not allowed to join national security meetings, said Bannon’s removal was a move back to a better process.
“It was wrong for him to be added in the first place, and it was right to take him off,” he said.
Even if Bannon really was removed only because there was no longer a need for someone to mind Flynn, Rove added, the end result was a victory for McMaster.
“It’s either a sign of McMaster’s strength, or the result is it strengthens McMaster,” he said.
Karl Rove and George Bush in happier GOP times
Still, Bannon, who has been under attack from outside the administration since the early days of the transition, is a crafty survivor and insiders warned that it would be a mistake to underestimate him. When McMaster wanted to fire a staff member, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, Bannon intervened to save his job.
Cohen-Watnick had alerted colleagues that Trump’s associates had been caught up in surveillance of foreigners, information then shown by another White House official to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in last year’s election.
James Jeffrey, a deputy national security adviser to Bush, said McMaster appeared to have “scored one on the presumably more powerful Bannon,” but cautioned against reading too much into what it meant for Bannon.
“He seems to be very close to the president and by most accounts still wins many of his battles,” Jeffrey said.
For the first two months of Trump’s presidency, Bannon occupied an unassailable perch at the president’s side — ramming through key elements of his eclectic and hard-edge populist agenda, including two executive orders on freezing immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries. Trump viewed Bannon as a street-fighting kindred spirit who favored his own attack-when-attacked communications strategy.
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017. Also pictured, from left, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
But blunders by Bannon’s team — especially the first immigration order, which was rejected by multiple courts — have undermined his position. His take-no-prisoners style was not a winning strategy on Capitol Hill. More experienced politicians, including Pence and Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, stepped into more expansive roles as negotiations over the failed health care overhaul dragged on.
Trump initially supported Bannon’s take-it-or-leave-it final message to holdouts in the House Freedom Caucus. But, needing a win, Trump grew skeptical and authorized Pence to resume health care talks, with Bannon playing more of a supporting role, according to three people close to Trump.
Bannon has also been at odds with Gary Cohn, the president’s national economics adviser. Cohn is close with Kushner, who has said privately that he fears that Bannon plays to the president’s worst impulses, according to people with direct knowledge of such discussions.
Moreover, Bannon’s Svengali-style reputation has chafed on a president who sees himself as the West Wing’s only leading man. Several associates said the president had quietly expressed annoyance over the credit Bannon had received for setting the agenda — and Trump was not pleased by liberals’ considering him “President Bannon.”
Yet there is a risk for Trump in appearing to minimize Bannon, a hero to the nationalist, anti-immigration base that helped drive Trump to an Electoral College victory. With his approval ratings at historic lows for so early in a presidency, Trump is counting on the same people who see Bannon as their champion — just as Bannon is counting on Trump to retain his place in the White House inner circle.