New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said on Saturday that former Breitbart.com CEO turned senior White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s days were numbered in President Donald Trump’s administration from the moment his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
“If you’re any student of politics, you saw Steve Bannon on the cover of Time magazine in early February — ‘The Great Manipulator,’ it called him — and knew to start the countdown then,” Bruni wrote. “Dead strategist walking.”
Other reports from White House insiders agree, Pres. Trump was deeply annoyed at seeing his adviser on the cover of Time billed as the hand behind the throne.
“That doesn’t just happen,” Trump reportedly said when he saw the cover.
“He’d crossed the line that a politician’s advisers mustn’t, to a place and prominence where only the most foolish of them tread,” said Bruni. “Or at best he’d failed to prevent the media from tugging him there.”
“He was damned the moment he was cast as a puppeteer,” he continued. “That means there’s a puppet in the equation, and no politician is going to accept that designation, least of all one who stamps his name in gold on anything that stands still long enough to be stamped. Or whose debate performance included the repartee: ‘No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet.’”
The notoriously thin-skinned Trump was not about to be upstaged by an adviser he assumed would remain in the background.
“Politics is a tricky business,” Bruni explained. “Washington is a treacherous place and Trumplandia is downright brutal. In all three realms, you have to strike the right balance of self-promotion and self-effacement.”
Bannon overstepped his bounds, as far as Trump was concerned, hence the president’s statements last week publicly distancing himself from the “alt-right” white nationalist in interviews, calling him “a guy who works for me” and claiming not to have known him before the 2016 campaign.
Bruni said it must have stung for Bannon to hear his boss “lumping the lumpy tactician together with the concierges at Trump Tower, the groundskeepers at Mar-a-Loco and the makers of the meatloaf in the White House kitchen.”
“Trump’s allegiances are fickle. His attention flits,” Bruni wrote. “His compass is popularity, not any fixed philosophy, certainly not the divisive brand of populism and nationalism that Bannon was trying to enforce. Bannon insisted on an ideology when Trump cares more about applause, and what generates it at a campaign rally isn’t what sustains it when you’re actually governing.”
Bannon’s biggest mistake, Bruni said, was to pick a fight with one of Trump’s family members, son-in-law Jared Kushner. Breitbart went on an anti-Kushner tear, publishing a rapid-fire series of articles attacking him, only backing off when Kushner himself complained to the president.
“Consider Trump’s obsession with appearances, then tell me who has the advantage: the guy who looks like a flea market made flesh or the one who seems poised to pose for G.Q.?” Bruni said.
He concluded, “Bannon is still on the job, and Trump may keep him there, because while he has been disruptive inside the White House, he could be pure nitroglycerin outside. He commands acolytes on the alt-right. He has the mouthpiece of Breitbart News. He has means for revenge. He also has a history of it.”
Bannon should have borne in mind, said Bruni, that “if you want to be the Svengali, you have to play the sycophant. That was a performance beyond Bannon’s ken. He never had a chance.”