Trump was for Steve Bannon before he was against him

Story highlights

  • Trump praised Bannon in a Cabinet meeting
  • Hours later he embraced McConnell, whom Bannon has launched a 'war' against

Washington (CNN)Caution: White House observers may experience whiplash.

In a dizzying sequence of events Monday, President Donald Trump appeared to align himself with both sides of the escalating Republican civil war, epitomizing the turmoil racking the party, and his own chameleon-like political style.
Side-by-side in the Rose Garden with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the most elite of Republican establishment elites, Trump declared that he and the Senate majority leader had never been closer. Yet barely two hours earlier, the President had aligned himself squarely with his former political guru Steve Bannon, who just this weekend warned of a "season of war" against GOP leaders -- namely, McConnell.
    It's a tug-of-war for the President's mind and his heart, and it unfolded on TV between sworn enemies who have radically different visions of how the Republican Party should fight and what it should fight for.

    'I know how he feels'

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    It all began in a Cabinet meeting when the President was asked about Bannon's searing attacks on McConnell during the Values Voter Summit at the weekend.
    "I can understand where Steve Bannon is coming from," Trump said, explaining that his former chief political adviser was frustrated at the failure of Congress to get big things done -- like repealing Obamacare.
    "I know how he feels," Trump said before quickly making clear he did not blame himself for the congressional inertia, instead singling out GOP senators, such as John McCain, for voting against the health care bill.
    Trump's comments immediately poured gasoline on stories about the battle in the Republican Party between its insurgent and establishment wings that are threatening to widen as the midterm races heat up and will have a considerable influence on how his presidency unfolds.
    For a couple of hours Monday it seemed that Trump had chosen sides -- but not so fast.
    Just after meeting his Cabinet, Trump settled down for lunch with McConnell, the man he ordered in a Twitter blast in August to "Get back to work!" after the GOP drew a blank on enacting his agenda.
    How awkward was the meeting? Apparently not at all, judging by the belief-defying buddy act in the Rose Garden.

    'Closer than ever'

    Gazing imperially through narrowed eyes at a crowd of reporters baying for a question, Trump sought to turn a page on his months of ill feeling with McConnell, who suggested in the summer that the President harbored unrealistic expectations of Senate action.
    "We are probably now, despite what we read, we are probably now, I think, at least as far as I am concerned, we are closer than ever before and the relationship is very good," Trump said.
    McConnell, one of the most inscrutable political operators in Washington, did what he always does -- he put on a straight face.
    "I think what the President and I would both like to say to you today, contrary to what some of you may have reported, we are together totally on this agenda to move America forward," the Kentucky Republican said, as both men groped for areas where they had actually combined with some effect -- for instance the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a raft of conservative judicial nominees.
    The encounter summed up Trump's current political dilemma.
    He has McConnell and the Republican establishment in one ear, telling him to knit the party together to rack up some achievements, or end up with a barren political legacy.
    In the other ear is Bannon saying McConnell is exactly the kind of globalist Washington swamp monster that he ran against and who is now trying to neuter his populist, nationalist presidency.
    "We've cut your oxygen off, Mitch," Bannon boasted on Saturday.
    The truth is Trump that needs Senate Republicans -- and they need him -- to finally pass something, anything, after the embarrassing failure to crush Obamacare. Many GOP lawmakers have warned that a similar debacle on tax reform could so demoralize grassroots conservatives that they may not be motivated to vote in the midterms.
    But Trump got into politics partly because he viscerally opposes everything those establishment figures stand for on trade and foreign policy especially. And the President simply doesn't want to kill off the outsider political persona that won him the White House, even though it repeatedly draws him into conflict with people like McConnell.
    That was obvious, when even as he verbally embraced McConnell in the Rose Garden, Trump could not quite let Bannon go.
    "Well, I have a very good relationship, as you know, with Steve Bannon. Steve's been a friend of mine for a long time. I like Steve a lot," said Trump.
    Still, the President did seem to have new appreciation for McConnell's point -- that running insurgent candidates could provoke a disaster a year in November.
    "Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they're great people," Trump said.

    'Fantastic relationship'

    A source familiar with Bannon's thinking told CNN's Kaitlan Collins on Monday that he would be willing to hear the President out on certain candidates. But the source couldn't say whether he would back down if Trump asked him to do so.
    Still, how Trump might react after a future call from Bannon is unclear since Monday's events appeared to validate the theory that he is often influenced most by the last person he talked to.
    That might be one reason he was so complimentary of McConnell's Republican colleagues, the very people in Bannon's sights.
    "We have a fantastic relationship. I'm friends with most of them. ... I'm friends with most of them. I like and respect most of them. And I think they like and respect me," Trump said.
    McConnell meanwhile indicated that the names of wild insurgents who flayed establishment candidates in Republican primaries in previous cycles but were too extreme to win in the fall, are engraved on his heart.
    "We nominated several candidates, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They're not in the Senate," he said.
    "You have to nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home," he said, using binary win-loss terminology that may appeal to Trump's bottom line concept of politics.
    On the daily Washington scorecard, McConnell can probably chalk up a win for the establishment -- Trump on camera, praising his caucus.
    Yet his gains may not count for much, once Trump next gets on the phone to Bannon.