Following Steve Bannon’s ouster from the White House on Friday, questions have swirled about what President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist will do next. His immediate return to Breitbart, the conservative news site he was running prior to joining Trump world, suggested he wasn’t planning to go quietly into that good night. In search of understanding Bannon’s next steps, I reached out to Josh Green, my friend and the author of “Devils’ Bargain,” the #1 New York Times bestselling book on Bannon and Trump. Josh is also a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and a CNN political analyst. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Bannon is out of the White House and back at Breitbart. What, if anything, surprises you about that?
Green: He was always going to end up back at Breibart eventually, that much was clear. He’d complained to associates that he missed the platform and the ability to influence elections beyond just the one in the US – it was especially frustrating for him watching Marine Le Pen, the nationalist candidate in France, lose as badly as she did.
But I’m surprised that he left at the moment Trump’s presidency is engulfed in crisis on every front, particularly the fallout from his response to Charlottesville. As was so often the case, Bannon was pretty much Trump’s sole defender. And given how sensitive we know the President is about having people defend him, I’m surprised that Bannon didn’t stick around until at least Labor Day. Although there were certainly plenty of people in the White House who thought his “defense” of the President was worsening the political fallout and were eager to see him gone, stat.
Cillizza: There were promises of war with the establishment coming hard on the heels of Bannon’s ouster. What does that mean? An exaggeration or not?
Green: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all. Just look at Breitbart News’s blaring orange headline today criticizing the generals whose strategy of sending more troops to Afghanistan has prevailed – or the headline attacking H.R. McMaster for allegedly failing to brief Trump about the Navy collision before he made his awkward “that’s too bad” comment to reporters.
I expect Breitbart and Bannon will go “buck wild” (to borrow a Bannonism) in their criticism of establishment figures on Capitol Hill and in the White House, whether it’s [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell or [National Economic Council Director] Gary Cohn.
What I think remains to be seen is what kind of real-world influence that’ll have. If all they’re able to do is whip up a bunch of foaming Internet commenters, it may not be a great problem for those left running the White House. But if the House Freedom Caucus and other Breitbart allies respond, that could pose a serious problem to the Trump administration’s ability to govern – and they’re not exactly knocking it out of the park to begin with.
Cillizza: Will Bannon go after Trump? Others in the White House? Republicans in Congress? All three?
Green: That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t know. My guess is that in the near term, Bannon will not go after Trump directly. When I spoke to Bannon on Friday, he seemed to be planning to go after the “West Wing Democrats” as a way of weakening their influence and their standing with Trump and the Republican base. But there’s no question that Bannon is going to go after others in the White House (hi, Javanka!), and has in fact already begun to, and also will go after Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Cillizza: How grand are Bannon’s ambitions? TV network? Bigger Breitbart? And can he make it happen?
Green: Unclear. Bannon himself has a pretty grandiose view of his own powers and definitely has global ambitions. He’s told me that before and after he left the White House. The question is what form they’ll take. I know there’s been a lot of chatter and media reports that Bannon is going to turn around and immediately launch some kind of Breitbart TV network to challenge Fox News, funded by Robert Mercer’s billions. Count me skeptical. Bannon has always thought that the web is the place to galvanize the rising generation of conservative voters, and he’s always been leery of the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to truly launch a viable Fox competitor – and Fox took years to build up its influence.
I think what we’ll see instead is a Breitbart News on steroids, and probably a global expansion that will take it into new countries and new markets where nationalist movements are growing.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The defining trait of Steve Bannon is _______.” Now explain.
Bannon isn’t always effective or strategically sound in his thinking, but the guy is an unstoppable machine (whether for good or ill, I’ll leave to your wise readers to decide).
As I argue in ’Devil’s Bargain,’ I think he was a very shrewd crafter of Trump’s message and the outside-the-box approach to electoral politics that drove Trump’s upset victory – but that for the most part failed to achieve what he wanted to do with Trump in the White House. But Bannon never stopped fighting for the 18 hours a day he was awake and toiling in the White House. And it’s totally characteristic of Bannon that he left the White House on a Friday and within hours of his departure was already leading the evening editorial call at Breitbart. So whatever happens next, he will be out there pushing very hard every day. And when Bannon does that, it usually has an effect.