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Inside the President Trump-Steve Bannon relationship from the campaign trail to the White House

By Robert Costa

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is one of the most controversial figures in President Donald Trump’s administration. And in a new bestselling book — Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency Joshua Green takes readers inside the mysterious, up-and-down relationship between the president and his populist guru.

Green, a “Washington Week” regular and senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, spoke with me recently about how he got to know Bannon years ago and about Bannon’s role and influence in the president’s circle.

ROBERT COSTA: Steve Bannon is a fascinating character. His critics see him as a lightning rod who is aligned with the “alt right.” His supporters say he’s this new nationalist force in American politics. How powerful is he right now in Washington and inside the White House?

JOSHUA GREEN: He’s powerful just because of his proximity to Donald Trump. If you're in Trump's orbit and have Trump's ear, there's always a chance he's gonna listen to you, and Trump has made clear over the last couple years that he listens to Steve Bannon. Having said that, I think that Bannon is never going to have the kind of influence and stature with Trump that he did in the weeks after winning the election and in the early weeks of the administration because it was just such a shocking victory and I think Trump himself attributed some of the credit for that victory to Steve Bannon — although I don't think Trump would ever admit that publicly.

But after Trump's agenda started to go off the rails in the first few weeks of the presidency with the travel ban protests and all the other things that didn't workout, that changed. Bannon had this idea of coming in with a shock and awe strategy that he tried to pull off with the travel ban. That didn't workout. It got blocked by the federal courts and there were nationwide protests. So there were a lot of advisors and family members around Trump who, while they may have appreciated Steve’s contributions strategically during the campaign, thought that he was in the wrong role operating as Trump's strategist and tried hard to push him out.

The other factor, of course in Bannon's fall was his public profile. The idea of this ‘great manipulator,’ as Time Magazine put it. There was ‘President Bannon,’ as Saturday Night Live put it. Trump came to think that Bannon was too full of himself and needed to be taken down a peg. Therefore, he lost a lot of the influence that he once had.

COSTA: But there are flashes of real influence, in spite of all of the pitfalls or problems he's had over the last few months. When you look at trade policy and Trump's protectionist tone, it seems like Bannon's still right there.

GREEN: I think that's right. I do think that Bannon understands, represents and channels Trump's political instincts better than anybody else in Trump's universe. But I also think that Trump doesn't ever listen to anyone for very long. You know, there's a trope in political reporting of the all powerful Machiavelli figure seducing the politician or pulling on puppet strings. Karl Rove was known as George W. Bush's brain, and so on. With Trump it's different. He has a group of people around him, all of whom he listens to at various times. But when he does it, he hops around among advisors the way he clicks through cable channels. That’s kind of the way I think of it.

Even though Steven Bannon isn't getting everything he wants policy wise from Trump, not by a long shot, Trump is still willing to listen and respond on nationalist policies like removing the United States from the Paris Accords, which Bannon supports. I do wonder now, with the apparent collapse of the health care effort, if Trump doesn't eventually kind of return to his comfort zone of populous nationalism and respond by doing something Bannon-like on trade or something like that.

COSTA: Where do we see Bannon’s fingerprints on foreign policy?

GREEN: Bannon is a guy who is deeply read — history, intellectual biographies, military biographies — and he has a rather grandiose sense of himself as a geopolitical strategist. I don't think that he wound up on the national security council by accident. But I also think that it's been recognized inside the Trump White House that Steve Bannon has no experience in foreign policy and doesn't belong in those meetings and that there are more qualified officials, like General Mattis, the defense secretary, who really ought to the ones making those decisions. Part of Bannon's fall from grace back in the spring is that he lost a seat on the national security council. But we know that Trump is always curious and questioning the people around him about what he should do, not just on domestic policy but on foreign policy. So I don't have any doubt that Bannon's foreign policy views still get an airing in some format. It's just not the official channel that it was briefly at the beginning of the administration.

COSTA: President Trump is someone who’s at times hard to read, in particular with regard to how his relationships with aides and friends really work. What are your insights, what have you learned over course of your lengthy reporting about the rapport between Trump and Bannon?

GREEN: The two of them click. First of all, just in talking to people around Trump, and this predates the election. They tell me that Trump really does like Steve Bannon. And Bannon, behind the scenes, can be a very compelling, charismatic, an even funny man, nothing like the Darth Vader portrayal that he kind of cultivates in the popular culture. But I think one of the reasons that the two of them click is that as different as their backgrounds are — son of a rich New York developer, in Trump's case, blue collar kid and son of an AT&T telephone linesman in Bannon's case — they do have a lot of similarities. Both of them went to military school. Both of them spent time deal making in Manhattan. Both of them have been seriously involved in the entertainment industry, Trump with “The Apprentice,” Bannon in Hollywood producing films. At heart, both of them are deal guys. Both of them travel in the same mogul circles. Bannon had done deals with the likes of Ted Turner and Mike Ovitz before he had met Trump.

Bannon comfortable talking to Trump and dealing with Trump as an almost peer in a way that, for instance, a Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager, or a Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, or even a Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman, might not have been.

COSTA: When I was reading your book, I was struck by how they also seem to connect on an ethos. They both want to be at the elite levels of the financial and political world but on their own terms, with an outsider cred. You look at Trump and the way he relishes eating hamburgers and fast food, Bannon the way he dresses casually. They both are these men who clamor to be at the top of the heap in all of these different circles, yet outsiders.

GREEN: Both of them in their own way were outsiders and have a chip on their shoulder because of it. Bannon was a blue collar guy from a Navy family who went to Harvard Business School. Because of his stint in the Navy, he arrived much later than other students do, at 29 years old. He didn't have the kind of boarding school pedigree and networking ability that most of his classmates did. It’s clear that on on some level, he resents that. Trump wanted to be a big Manhattan developer. But he was a kid from Queens and his dad made high rise tenements for working class people in the outer boroughs. There's nothing Manhattan glitz about that.

Each man was an interloper in his own world, to a large extent. And I think that common experience bonds them on some level. It certainly shapes their joint political stance, both toward their own party and just toward political establishments in Washington generally.

 

COSTA: What about Bannon’s faith? One thing that comes through in your book is how he he’s a devout Roman Catholic. He's more on the conservative side of the church. He has deeply held views about Islam. Do those views have a place in this administration? Are they shaping anything from what you can tell?

GREEN: It’s shaping things because this is what fuels and informs Bannon's beliefs. I mean, he is a, a Tridentine, Latin Mass Catholic with very traditionalist beliefs. He has done deep reading, not just in Catholic philosophers, but everything from occultism to French metaphysics to Hinduism. He has a wider range of influences than anyone in politics I've ever come across. Even after writing this book, I still am not sure I have a full grasp of how all this knits together. But I have no doubt that it informs his view of politics, his his view of populist nationalism. It shapes the political advice that he gives to Trump.

COSTA: The first time you met Steve Bannon was in 2011. Tell me about how you came to know him.

GREEN: I had done a big piece for the Atlantic Monthly, this kind of contrarian piece on Palin where I flew out to Alaska and spent some time there and sort of made the case that despite all the craziness and the “Saturday Night Live” Tina Fey stereotype, she'd actually done a pretty good job over those two years as governor.

The was budget there was broken. It was a mess. She went in and cleaned up the Republican Party, fixed the state budget, raised taxes on oil companies by cooperating with Democrats. At the end of my article, which was called the tragedy of Sarah Palin, I sort of said that what the GOP needs is to return to the kind of maverick populism that Palin showed as Alaska governor. And of course, that struck accord with Steve Palin. With Steve Bannon. His publicist called me up and said, "Hey, I represent this guy who's made this film on Palin. He read your article, he loved it. Can you come to the sound studio?" I did. This was before the premiere in Pella, Iowa.

Bannon is just such a vivid, distinct character, both politically but also just as a literary subject. I kind of made up my mind then that, “hey, this is interesting, I'm going to go along with him.” So I wound up traveling with him to Pella because that was the premiere of the Palin movie and of course we in the media all thought this might be the kickoff of a presidential campaign.

COSTA: Andrew Breitbart was there in Iowa, before he passed away. Bannon ended up taking over Breitbart not long after that.

GREEN: That’s right. Andrew was spinning me about the majesty and propaganda filmmaking talent of Steve Bannon, who he compared to Leni Riefenstahl. So that was when I first met Bannon. I think Pella was the first trip that I ever took with him to a political event.

COSTA: Looking back, could you have ever imagined where Bannon would end up six years later, inside the White House?

GREEN: Never, never in a million years could I imagine it. Sometimes, I look back at my reporting over the last five years. I was there up close with Bannon and the Breitbart folks and the Trump folks, and kick myself for not having recognized what was happening. I had a front row seat to the show and I didn't see it coming. I was as shocked on election night as everybody else was.

But the purpose of the book was to kind of go back to the beginning and give a full accounting of what I had missed and kind of put the pieces of the story together as told thought the relationship of these, these two guys, Trump and Bannon, and how their partnership led to the greatest political upset in American history.