Steve Bannon is back and has the ear of Trump – but in a more back-room role than ever before.
You won’t see him back inside a West Wing office. You probably won’t see him fist-pumping the air alongside president at a rally of the faithful.
But make no mistake – Steve Bannon is back, albeit in an even more shadowy role than last time.
He once again has the ear of Donald Trump and the pair have been exchanging telephone calls. Bannon’s resurrection has been helped by the emergence of the conservative triumvirate of secretary of state Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and senior lawyer/political strategist Rudy Giuliani, and also by the waning influence of General John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and the man who effectively fired him last August. Indeed, the signs are now that Kelly himself could be the next high profile departure out of Trump’s ever-revolving door.
The Bannon Factor is evident in the evolving Republican strategy of turning November’s precarious mid-term elections into a moment to ‘save the Trump presidency’ from (according to this narrative) ‘left-wing Democrats’ and the ‘witch hunt’ Mueller investigation and to strengthen the president’s 2020 re-election ambition. With the behind-the-scenes blessing of Trump and the Pompeo/Bolton/Giuliani axis, Bannon has been embarking on a series of interviews, rallies and other assorted interventions designed to mobilise the base and prop up Democrat areas that turned to Trump two years ago but are wavering now. As Bannon put it in one interview: ‘You’ve got to make it an up or down vote on November 6. I want Trump on the ticket in every district – you’re not voting for Congress, you’re voting for Donald Trump.’
The paradox is that this time around, Bannon – the architect of Trump’s ‘America First’ nationalist/protectionist agenda, which saw him secure the White House – is now, with Pompeo, Bolton and Giuliani, orchestrating a strategy of promoting the president as a dynamic, international man of action as the perceived key to domestic electoral success.
It is an ambitious plan. By rebranding Trump as a global action man, the quartet hope attention may be diverted from the investigations of Robert Mueller, which might suddenly seem rather parochial and trivial, at a time when the president is grappling with such immense international challenges. It also allows for another, associated narrative to take seed – that Trump is simply too busy with important matters to afford Mueller a lengthy interview. Bannon and his new allies are encouraged in their thinking by polls showing that up to 77% of Americans support the president’s decision to hold next month’s Singapore summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Their calculation is also that the fulfilment of election pledges to overturn the Iran nuclear deal – Obama’s flagship foreign policy achievement – and move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will also go down well across conservative America, with the latter policy playing particularly well among the powerful Evangelical vote that was so crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory.
But the risks inherent in the plan – calculated for domestic electoral advantage – could hardly be greater, with the destabilising effects of both policies now unfolding in the Middle East. Exactly where they will lead, no one can say.
The Washington Post has headlined it Trump’s ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ foreign policy – making major, eye-catching, overseas decisions that deliver short-term for Trump’s domestic base and have few, immediate domestic consequences (apart from favourable electoral ones), but create immense diplomatic headaches and significantly increase the risk of regional conflicts and long-term problems that will long outlast his presidency.
As one senior US state department figure put it to me privately, after the incendiary US embassy protests: ‘It’s been a great week for (Israeli prime minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and a disastrous week for American diplomacy. It tosses into the trash can Trump’s talk of forging new Middle East peace initiatives. It strips away our remaining credibility as a neutral party or honest broker in trying to find a solution to the Palestinian problem.
‘Whatever credibility the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had left as the man supposedly pioneering fresh ideas for an Israeli/Palestine peace solution is now very much in tatters. And, together with the Iran nuclear pact decision, it has massively ratcheted up the dangers of an all-out conflict between Iran and Israel and a much wider regional conflagration.’
US diplomats had long warned in vain that the symbolic timing of the Jerusalem embassy ceremony and the collision with the Nakba (the ‘catastrophe’; the phrase used by Palestinians to refer to the 1948 founding of Israel) was guaranteed to provoke confrontation and mass bloodshed.
But here again it is worth noting that the increasingly influential Pompeo/Bolton/Giuliani bloc – significantly reinforced by a revived Bannon – are all hardliners on Iran, Palestine and North Korea, while unflinching supporters of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Privately, none of them ever gave too much credence to the Kushner initiative and in one recent Fox News interview, Giuliani even hinted that the president’s son-in-law – who has twice been interviewed in the Mueller investigation – could be ‘disposable’ while warning the special counsel to lay off his wife Ivanka, declaring: ‘If they do do Ivanka, which I doubt they will, the whole country will turn on him.’
Bannon has also been interviewed for several hours by Mueller and his team. There have been no leaks from within the investigation team about what transpired, but sources close to Trump’s legal team – headed, of course, by Giuliani – are convinced that although Bannon, who was under oath, may have been compelled to compromise Kushner and Donald Trump Jnr, he is believed to have offered little that would directly damage the president himself.
Here, perhaps, is one more reason why he is back in favour as a behind-the-scenes strategy adviser, and yet more evidence that in US politics at the moment foreign and domestic affairs – despite attempts to suggest the contrary – are utterly, intractably linked.