The dramatic collapse on Wednesday of the shaky alliance between President Donald Trump and his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, marked perhaps the most vicious falling out between a president and a former aide in modern history.
But the fireworks capped months of tension between the two, who have repeatedly taken veiled shots at each other through the news media but never attacked each other on the national stage.
On the way to Mar-a-Lago for Christmas, the president fumed about a report in Vanity Fair that quoted Bannon saying Trump had just a 30 percent chance of serving out a full term, but the president’s aides persuaded him not to go public with his frustration, according to two sources familiar with the episode.
That veneer of politeness dropped when Trump saw news reports Wednesday about a book excerpt by the New York journalist Michael Wolff exposing Bannon’s contempt not only for the Trump family but for the president himself.
Bannon mused openly that a Trump Tower meeting with Russians involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was “stupid,” “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” Wolff also related conversations between Bannon and Roger Ailes, the late Fox News chairman, in which Bannon jokes about Trump’s incomplete understanding of political matters. “He gets what he gets,” Bannon reportedly said.
Trump spent the day seething, telling aides that his campaign chairman is “not well,” and issuing a formal presidential statement declaring that Bannon had “lost his mind.”
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said, adding: “He spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well.”
The public meltdown convinced some who had worked closely with the Trump campaign that the president had effectively kneecapped his former adviser, who is considered an influential force on the populist right.
“Bannon was shot on the South Lawn and run over by a tank and the president shifted in gear and ran over him again,” said veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins, a strategist for the pro-Trump Great America super PAC. “I’ve never seen anybody blown up like he was.”
The problem, Rollins said, stemmed from the fact that “Bannon saw his role as a lot bigger than it ever was or than it ever would be.”
Trump’s relationship with Bannon turned rocky as soon as they entered the West Wing, each insisting privately that he controlled the other.
Before Bannon joined the Trump campaign, Trump was but the latest in a string of implausible political candidates Bannon had championed through his website, Breitbart News, including Dave Brat, who took down then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He had also inflicted damage on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by helping to finance and publicize the book “Clinton Cash” about the funding of and fundraising for the Clinton Foundation. So Bannon took a certain amount of credit when Trump’s political campaign took off — and when he won the presidency.
But Trump brought to his campaign a nationally recognized brand, following, and name ID of his own — and he turned Bannon into a celebrity who regularly appeared on magazine covers and who was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” Each claimed credit for the success of the other.
Bannon had gone out of his way to foster the illusion that he was the puppet master behind the Trump presidency, and Trump grew frustrated when the media perpetuated that notion. Time magazine’s cover story dubbing Bannon “The Great Manipulator” was but one example of the genre. The president responded by publicly diminishing his chief strategist, telling reporters he was “just a guy who works for me” and who had joined his campaign late in the game.
Behind the scenes, the president, who often bestows derisive nicknames on associates for whom he has contempt, began referring to Bannon as “Bam Bam.”
Though their relationship may have been fraught, Bannon’s firing in August did not cause a public break. Trump allowed his departing aide to say publicly that he had resigned, though it was widely understood that the president’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, had pushed him out.
The day after Bannon’s firing, Trump wrote on Twitter, “I want to thank Steve Bannon for his service. He came to the campaign during my run against Crooked Hillary Clinton — it was great!”
Since Bannon’s departure from the White House, the rift between the two had steadily widened, beginning with Bannon’s precipitous declaration, the day after his departure, that “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.”
“It’ll be something else,” Bannon said. “And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over.”
Since then, however, most of the fights that Bannon has engaged in have pitted him against the Trump White House. Though he has cast himself as the ultimate loyalist — an indispensable translator of the political sentiments of the Trump base — it became increasingly clear, in recent months, that he and the president had different interests and that Bannon would, when necessary, work to thwart the president, and vice versa.
Back at the helm of Breitbart News, for example, he endorsed Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate primary while the president backed appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange. He blamed the president’s decision on lobbying efforts by Kushner, whom he privately referred to as “Fredo,” the traitorous brother of “The Godfather.”
He has been critical of the legal strategy being employed by the president’s lawyers, Ty Cobb and John Dowd, telling reporters that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe would bring down the president if they didn’t get more aggressive.
And he has publicly hammered the president for his failure, thus far, to crack down on China’s trade practices, though the president himself has said he is willing to back off the Asian superpower in exchange for China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea.
Now, the mask of friendship has dropped, and whatever sentiments the president had suppressed as he flew to Mar-a-Lago burst into full view: Trump said in his official statement that Bannon “lost his job” and that, as a member of the White House staff, he 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.”
There are already signs that Trump’s disavowal is hurting Bannon, who has devoted himself to boosting anti-establishment candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump blamed him for Moore’s loss in Alabama, saying he had “everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans” and that he “doesn’t represent my base.”
On Wednesday evening, a spokesman for Kelli Ward, the candidate Bannon is backing in the Arizona Senate race, and who has attended parties at Breitbart headquarters in Washington, issued a statement about Bannon.
Bannon, said the Ward spokesman, “is only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received.”
Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.