President Trump on Tuesday mounted a defense of sorts of Steve Bannon, his top strategist and arguably the most potent hard-right nationalist aide in the White House, without ever dismissing calls for him to be fired.
“Well, we’ll see,” Trump told reporters asking about Bannon’s fate during a question and answer session at the gilded Manhattan tower that bears the president’s name. This week has brought a flurry of news reports that Bannon is on thin ice.
“I like him. He’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that, he’s a good person,” Trump said. “We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon, but he’s a good person and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly.”
The president had not been asked whether Bannon was a racist. But that’s a charge sometimes leveled at the gruff and rumpled adviser, who once boasted he had turned the Breitbart News site into a platform for the so-called alt-right coalition of right-wing groups.
Bannon’s standing in the White House has suffered with the arrival of Trump’s new chief of staff, retired Gen. John Kelly, who has vowed to impose discipline on the famously chaotic West Wing and tamp down its destructive internal rivalries. Kelly has thrown his support behind national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has faced a barrage of angry stories in conservative outlets for pushing out National Security Council aides tied to Bannon. McMaster and Bannon have also clashed over the future of the war in Afghanistan, with the former favoring a modest troop surge and efforts to shore up fragile government institutions and the latter deeply skeptical of deeper engagement in America’s longest war and resistant to anything that might resemble the nation-building Trump denounced in 2016.
Trump is also known to be annoyed with media portrayals of Bannon as taking credit for the real estate mogul’s general election victory last year. And the president put that irritation on display for reporters on Tuesday.
“I like Mr. Bannon, he’s a friend of mine,” Trump said. “But Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that.”
As for Trump’s controversial statement about the violence in Charlottesville, Va., where an alleged Nazi sympathizer killed a woman when he drove his car into a crowd, “I never spoke to Mr. Bannon about it,” the president said.
Trump tapped Bannon to be his campaign’s chief executive on Aug. 17, 2016, after accepting the Republican nomination. The future president told confidants that he enjoyed the fact that Bannon is independently wealthy and did not need the job.
Bannon has strong ties to conservatives in Congress, though insiders say he has not been especially nimble in winning over wavering lawmakers, notably in fights over efforts to repeal Obamacare.
Some Trump aides say it may just be Bannon’s turn in the barrel, and that he has survived West Wing intrigue before.
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