WASHINGTON — He has been training populists in Italy and fomenting revolution in Belgium. He has been down in Texas, building a wall. But these have all been halting projects, placeholders. The real question is whether Steve Bannon will be back by Donald Trump’s side in 2020, after a two-year exile from Trumpworld.
That could happen, at least according to Trump himself. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Trump said when I asked him about Bannon in February, during an Oval Office interview. “I watched Bannon a few times, four or five times over the last six months. Nobody says anything better about me right now than Bannon. I don’t know.”
Bannon, of course, was the mastermind who took over a faltering Trump campaign in August 2016, guiding it to improbable victory. He then served as Trump’s chief political strategist in the White House, only to be forced out by Trump’s second chief of staff, John Kelly, in a move that a plainly exhausted Bannon seemed to almost welcome after months of battling the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and, well, pretty much everyone else.
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon
US President Donald Trump (L) congratulates Senior Counselor to the President Stephen Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on January 22, 2017 in Washington, DC.
(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), is joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, as he speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2017. Jonathan Ernst: "Very early in the Trump administration, weekends were as busy as weekdays. On Trump's second Saturday the official schedule said he would be making private phone calls to a number of world leaders including Russia's Vladimir Putin. I arrived early and, before sitting down at my desk walked up to Press Secretary Sean Spicer's office. He, too, was just taking his coat off. I gingerly made the suggestion that previous administrations had sometimes allowed photos of such phone calls through the Oval Office windows on the colonnade. To my mild shock, he didn't even think about it twice. "We'll do it!" he said. In truth, I really only expected the Putin call, but we were outside the windows multiple times throughout the day as the calls went on."
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to chief strategist Steve Bannon during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 22, 2017.
Trump advisers Steve Bannon (L) and Jared Kushner (R) listen as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with members of his Cabinet at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2017.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump (C) and campaign CEO Steve Bannon (R) listen to National Park Service Interpretive Park Ranger Caitlin Kostic (2nd R) on a brief visit to Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. October 22, 2016.
U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump signs a memorandum to security services directing them to defeat the Islamic State in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017. Pictured with him are White House senior advisor Steve Bannon (L-R), National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Vice President Mike Pence, Deputy National Security Advisor K. T. McFarland, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, National Security Council Chief of Staff Keith Kellogg and senior advisor Kellyanne Conway.
Trump advisor Steve Bannon (L) watches as US President Donald Trump greets Elon Musk, SpaceX and Tesla CEO, before a policy and strategy forum with executives in the State Dining Room of the White House February 3, 2017 in Washington, DC.
(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Senior Advisor Jared Kusher, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and President Donald Trump arrive at the start of a meeting with Senate and House legislators, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, February 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers included in the meeting were Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA).
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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Bannon’s banishment, though, did not truly begin until January 2018, when journalist Michael Wolff published his book Fire and Fury about the Trump administration. A main source for Wolff, Bannon was on the record deriding Trump’s two favorite children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka. The president didn’t exactly turn the other cheek, branding his former consigliere “Sloppy Steve” on Twitter. Just a few days later, he was summarily removed from the chairmanship of Breitbart News, the right-wing news organization that had made a bracing case for Trump in 2016.
The estrangement could be nearing an end, however, now that the 2020 presidential election is nearing and Trump may need Bannon to rile the conservative grassroots once more, as he did in 2016. At the very least, Trump’s anger at the man once branded “The Great Manipulator” on the cover of Timemagazine — a cover image impossible to avoid at Breitbart Embassy — appears to have entirely dissipated.
“I think Steve wants it,” says Sam Nunberg, a former close Trump adviser who later worked with Bannon.
When we spoke, Trump dismissed the comments Bannon made to Wolff, describing Fire and Fury as a “phony book.” We did not speak about Siege, Wolff’s second book on Trump, because it had not yet been published. Bannon was Wolff’s main source source in the book. He too reports that “rumors” of a rapprochement have circulated in Washington.
A person close to the White House who was previously a member of the administration said that he had “noticed” Trump recently “softening” toward Bannon. “I want to say yes, but then he does stuff that hurts his own cause.” This person, who asked for anonymity in order to not imperil professional relationships, says that Trump was upset that Bannon cooperated with Wolff on Siege, but not nearly as upset as he had been with Fire and Fury. (The White House declined to comment on the record for this story.)
“He will never be back in an official capacity,” the White House insider adds, “but if he’s smart, he could get back into good graces.”
Nothing Trump told me suggests those rumors are untrue. Our conversation moved on, but then the president later returned, unprompted, to the subject of his former chief strategist. “There is nobody that has been more respectful of the job I’m doing than Steve Bannon,” Trump told me.
Bannon appears to have made a calculated effort to return to Trump’s good graces. When I spoke to Bannon in New York in late 2018, he was as effusive about Trump as I had ever heard him.
“He has a great love of his country,” Bannon said. “I’ve seen this guy up-close. He’s got a great love of his country. He did this out of duty. I know that makes people’s heads blow up, but he did it out of duty.”
Bannon also made sure to praise first lady Melania Trump (“a lovely wife”) and the “loving” Trump family, a departure from the criticisms he had made to Wolff more than a year before.
More recently, Bannon has been busy promoting Trump’s trade policies when he is not meeting with right-wing leaders in Europe. His influential publicist, Alexandra Preate, recently sent me a video of a Bannon appearance on CNBC. In the clip, Bannon praises Trump’s trade policies.
“Every president beforehand, Clinton, Bush and Obama, have all blinked,” Bannon said of the trade war with China. Trump didn’t blink."
White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon speaks with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for their joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and White House Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks walk along the colonnade ahead of a joint press conference by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (R) and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon board Air Force One at West Palm Beach International airport in West Palm Beach, Florida U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon (L) and senior aide Kellyanne Conway speak at meeting hosted by Trump with cyber security experts in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
FILE PHOTO: Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon (L) sits with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (C) and senior advisor Stephen Miller during a swearing-in ceremony at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump signs a memorandum to security services directing them to defeat the Islamic State in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017. Pictured with him are White House senior advisor Steve Bannon (L-R), National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Vice President Mike Pence, Deputy National Security Advisor K. T. McFarland, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, National Security Council Chief of Staff Keith Kellogg and senior advisor Kellyanne Conway. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist for US President-elect Donald Trump, talks on the phone outside Trump Tower in New York on December 9, 2016.
(DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (R) and senior counselor Steve Bannon (L) hold meetings at the Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. December 28, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign CEO Steve Bannon is pictured backstage during a campaign event in Eau Claire, Wisconsin U.S. November 1, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign CEO Steve Bannon (R) is pictured talking to a reporter after a campaign event in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. October 29, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign CEO Steve Bannon holds a campaign rally the Reno-Sparks Convention Center November 5, 2016 in Reno, Nevada. With less than a week before Election Day in the United States, Trump and his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, are campaigning in key battleground states that each must win to take the White House.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign CEO Steve Bannon (C) listens to Trump speak during his final campaign rally on Election Day in the Devos Place November 8, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Trump's marathon last day of campaigning stretched past midnight and into Election Day.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Steve Bannon gets off the plane with US President-elect Donald Trump arrives at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Kentucky, for the start of the 'USA Thank You Tour' at the US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, December 1, 2016.
(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Steve Bannon, chief strategist for Donal Trump, leaves after the motorcade of US President-elect arrived at Trump Tower on December 10, 2016 in New York.
(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Steve Bannon, (L) chief strategist for Donal Trump, exits Trump Tower on December 13, 2016 in New York.
(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Steve Bannon, senior counselor to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, arrives to attend meetings between Trump and business leaders at the Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. December 28, 2016.
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But even as a reunion between Trump and Bannon could be imminent, it is unclear whether Bannon could ever have a formal role on the Trump campaign. Trump often relies more on informal, outside advisers — Fox News host Sean Hannity, Newsmax publisher Chris Ruddy — than he does on formal ones, using late night phone calls to test out lines of attack and evaluate staffers. But it’s unclear if Bannon would even play the role of informal adviser.
“He’ll keep him at arm’s length,” says Nunberg. “The president is really his own strategist now,” he adds, and would hesitate to share credit.
The reelection campaign is being run by Brad Parscale, the 2016 campaign’s digital director. He has never managed a campaign before, let alone a presidential one. He was named Trump’s campaign manager in February 2018, an unusually early time for a president in his first term.
A former senior West Wing staffer who remains close to some in Trump’s inner circle explained to Yahoo News that Parscale was effectively installed by Kushner, the president’s influential and media-averse son-in-law. Even as Parscale divides his time between Florida and Northern Virginia, where the campaign is based, his title is a constant reminder that Kushner’s man, and no one else, is in charge.
The former West Wing staffer — who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly without compromising personal and professional relationships — said that Kushner has little interest in sharing power with Bannon, or with running the kind of freewheeling campaign Bannon would almost certainly have in mind.
Bannon, in turn, made his conditions known to Wolff: “If you get your f***ing relatives and Parscale out of there, I will run the f***ing campaign,” he said.
That seems highly unlikely. It is difficult to imagine Bannon working in the anonymous Arlington high-rise where the Trump reelection campaign has taken root. Filled with cheerful young staffers who have come from the Republican National Committee, the White House or branches of the federal government, it is nothing like what Bannon called the “crack den” in the Trump Tower where he set up shop in 2016. (The campaign declined to comment on the record.)
Then again, the unlikely and the probable are close partners in the age of Trump. And though Trump campaign insiders claim they are not worried, they also know that the president is utterly unpredictable. If he wants Bannon back, Bannon will be back.
Certainly, Bannon is saying all the right things. Trump “saved the country,” he told me during our lengthy conversation in December. “Regardless of how this works out now, he saved the country.”