Steve Bannon, like his onetime brother-in-arms President Donald Trump, is known as someone whose instinct is to double down, not kiss up.
That made his belated attempt on Sunday to de-escalate mounting tension with the commander-in-chief — who has been publicly and privately raging about his former chief strategist all week — notable to many of his allies, one of whom called it a “huge step for Steve, one of the most stubborn people on earth.”
But inside the White House, Bannon's 297-word statement of contrition about comments he made in Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House" was seen as too little, too late for an operative unaware of the self-inflicted damage his hubris could cause.
It did nothing to quell Trump’s rage at his former chief strategist or the anger of Bannon’s former West Wing colleagues, according to multiple administration officials, who said the vibe in the president’s circle was that people were unmoved by the statement. Asked whether there is anything Bannon can do at this point to get back in the president's good graces, one White House official said curtly, "Unlikely."
That posture has left Bannon supporters wondering whether the three-shirt-wearing bomb-thrower can switch the layers out for a hair shirt long enough to stop Trump from siding permanently with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — or whether Bannon’s populist wing of the Republican Party has already run out of time to maintain influence in this year’s midterm elections.
“The problem for Steve is that we were already into January 2018, and he doesn't really have a system, he doesn't have a fund, he doesn't have a political team,” said Matthew Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, whose wife works in the White House communications department. “Now it's going to take extra time to make things up, if he's able to, and repair the trust he had with the president. The clock is no longer on his side.”
A Republican pollster and operative with close ties to the White House marveled at the terrible timing of Bannon’s feud with Trump. “It happens after taxes, before the Camp David meeting this weekend,” the operative said, noting that McConnell and Ryan were both spending quality time with Trump during the peak of his Bannon frustration, shortly after celebrating their first big legislative victory. “He couldn’t have picked a worse day on the calendar for this to happen. The swamp won.”
Bannon’s influence, the operative predicted, will be zilch in the coming 2018 midterms, with no recruitment plan or financial backing to offer establishment-challenging outsider candidates. The operative, who has polled Bannon’s name ID in states like Alabama, said his image was 40 percent positive, 20 percent negative among Republican primary voters before the feud. “Now he’s going to be 20 to 40 — or worse,” the operative predicted.
Meanwhile, the “establishment” wing of the party was cheering the downfall of the anti-McConnell avatar. “This is a bigger win for the president, for whom Bannon is now less able to create problems and now unlikely to give the president continued bad advice in late night phone calls,” Karl Rove, the former chief strategist for President George W. Bush, said in an email on Sunday night. “Bannon shredded his biggest claim, that he was the president’s leader on the outside, the keeper of the flame who had discarded the ‘influence’ of being a mere staffer for the ‘power’ of being the leader of the nationalist populist movement.”
In issuing the statement that Bannon crafted himself — in which he expressed “regret” about his five-day delay in reacting to what he called “inaccurate reporting” regarding Donald Trump Jr. and professed undying fealty to the president and his agenda — Bannon was hoping to ratchet down what has become an untenable position for him.
He stalled in speaking out, friends said, in part because he didn’t remember making the comments attributed to him in the Wolff tome — Bannon reportedly called a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer “treasonous” and speculated that special counsel Robert Mueller would “crack Don Jr. like an egg” — but also because the president beat him to the punch by criticizing him on Twitter.
But over the past week, mulling his options, Bannon has been most concerned with clarifying his comments about Trump Jr. and uncharacteristically “de-escalating the tension,” an ally said. His Sunday statement said his comments to Wolff were meant to be critical of one-time campaign chief Paul Manafort, who also attended the Trump Tower meeting, not the president’s son.
Meanwhile, Trump has done just the opposite of de-escalating, finally letting loose on an over-empowered aide that many have been urging him to dump on publicly for months. Over the past week, he derided his ex-strategist as “Sloppy Steve” on Twitter and in a press conference conducted from Camp David. There, a jeans-clad McConnell stood with Trump like the victor in a fight for the soul of the Republican Party.
Bannon was also dropped by his benefactor, Rebekah Mercer, and his future at the helm of his website, Breitbart News, remains a question mark, even as he grinds onto the next immigration policy fight.
The attempt at an apology on Sunday — one that included no mention of his comments about his White House nemeses Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump — was too ill-timed to help his position, people close to the White House said.
“It would have been great if that apology had been at the beginning of the week,” added Schlapp. “Waiting to the end was a big setback.”
One Bannon ally said he was surprised to see the statement at all, figuring you either speak publicly immediately or don’t speak out at all.
While Bannon may be at a low point and the morale at Breitbart might be sinking, there was a silver lining, according to the close ally. “You’ll see a more serious Bannon come out of this,” the ally said.
And there were still some voices willing to speak up for him, despite his fall from grace.
“If there is anyone, like Bannon, who is a strong supporter of Israel and a strong fighter against anti-Semitism and that person ends up having less influence on the administration,” said Mort Klein, the president of the Sheldon Adelson-funded Zionist Organization of America, “that is something that would sadden me."
Andrew Restuccia contributed reporting.