Feud with Trump imperils Bannon's war on the GOP establishment
Despite his scathing remarks about President Donald Trump and his family in an upcoming book, former White House adviser Steve Bannon called Trump 'a great man" on his satellite radio show Wednesday night and said he still supports the president. (Jan. 4)
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s very public spat with his former adviser Steve Bannon roiled midterm congressional races on Thursday, as Bannon's biggest financial backer publicly severed ties with him and several "outsider" candidates championed by Bannon rushed to embrace the president.
Wealthy conservative Rebekah Mercer, whose family has bankrolled several Bannon projects including Breitbart News, said she has not spoken to Bannon, a former White House adviser, in months and backs Trump's agenda.
"I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected," Mercer said in a statement first provided to The Washington Post. "My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements."
Mercer's public disavowal of Bannon comes a day after after portions of interviews with the Breitbart chief were published by The Guardian.
In the interviews, excerpted from a forthcoming book, Bannon — who worked as the CEO of Trump’s campaign and a top adviser in the White House until August — said that a 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer was "treasonous” and “unpatriotic.”
The loss of Mercer's financial support imperils Bannon's much-touted crusade against the Republican establishment and could signal jeopardy for Bannon's position at Breitbart, where Mercer has an ownership stake.
Insurgent candidates who had previously courted Bannon's support also were quick to minimize his role in their campaigns this week after excerpts of the Bannon interviews became public. .
Michael Grimm, a former congressman who went to prison for tax evasion and is now running for his old seat against the sitting Republican, met with Bannon in October and posted a photo with Bannon captioned “Game on! #MAGA.”
But Wednesday night, he said the statements made by Bannon “are baseless attacks against the President's family, beyond disturbing, and I fully support our Commander in Chief.”
Kelli Ward — an anti-establishment Republican who ran against Sen. John McCain in 2016 and is running for the now-open Senate seat in Arizona after Sen.Jeff Flake announced he would not seek re-election — appeared with Bannon at a campaign event in October. But after Bannon’s interview excerpts were published this week, Ward’s campaign released a statement that said his was “only one of many high-profile endorsements” she has received.
Trump has gone on the offensive against both Bannon and Michael Wolff, the author of the explosive new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
On Thursday, the president's lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wolff and his publisher, claiming the book contains defamatory information and should not be published or distributed.
"Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency," the president said in a statement after excerpts of interviews went public Wednesday. "When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind."
“I would argue that it’s never been about Bannon," Blaine Kelly, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, told USA TODAY. "This has always been about President Trump ... President Trump won Ohio by 8 points, not Steve Bannon."
Ohio Republicans hope that Trump’s clear win in the state is a sign they’ll be able to beat sitting Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November. The Republican front-runnner in that race, state Treasurer Josh Mandel, was included in what Bannon's Breitbart has dubbed "the league of extraordinary candidates.”
Bannon has courted candidates to run against sitting GOP lawmakers who he accuses of blocking Trump’s agenda. Senate Republicans are preparing for a costly election season in which they could be forced to spend money in states they ordinarily would not have to defend incumbents.
Bannon and his allies had openly declared war on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and anyone aligned with him. The battle has already proved costly: Bannon-backed candidate Roy Moore beat incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama's Republican primary despite Strange having support from both Trump and McConnell. But Moore lost the general election to Democrat Doug Jones after allegations surfaced that Moore had engaged in sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
After Trump’s takedown of Bannon on Wednesday, McConnell and his allies openly gloated. McConnell’s campaign arm tweeted out a meme of the Kentucky Republican smiling.
Trump's banishment of Bannon "clarified the situation in some of these competing primaries where Mr. Bannon was out recruiting candidates who were unelectable in the general election," GOP Senate Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday. "I think it actually is a positive development for us and we can get back to nominating good electable candidates who can win in the general election."
The strains in the relationship between Bannon and his financial benefactors had become evident late last year. When billionaire Robert Mercer announced last November that he was stepping down as co-chief executive of his hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, he said his decisions about whom to support politically “do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.” He also disclosed that he was selling his share in Breitbart to his daughters.
Rebekah Mercer, his daughter, is active in politics and has been a close ally of Bannon's. Rebekah Mercer helped persuade Trump to bring Bannon into the presidential campaign.
“It’s a shocking turn of events for Bannon,” said Brent Bozell, a conservative activist who runs the Media Research Center, which has also received funding from the Mercers. Bannon “just killed himself” by turning on Trump, he said. “I don’t understand it.”
“Activists around the country will think twice about working with him,” Bozell said, “and candidates will think three times before asking for his endorsement.”
Bannon was quick to appear contrite – taking to the radio to praise Trump and his principles on both Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
"Nothing will ever come between us and President Trump and his agenda," Bannon said on Breitbart radio. "We're as tight on this agenda as we've ever been."
Dan Eberhart, an Arizona-based oil investor and a major fundraiser for Senate Republicans, said he has been frustrated with the inability of congressional leaders to pass major agenda items, and talked with Bannon several times last fall.
But the passage of a massive tax overhaul bill in December “has greatly alleviated my concerns,” Eberhart said, and he has concerns about Bannon's tactics.
“There’s definitely a strain of the grassroots that was energetic about what (Bannon) was doing,” Eberhart said. “But I think he’s taken a bridge too far” by taking aim at Trump's family in his comments int he book. “I don’t think that helps Bannon and what he’s purportedly trying to accomplish.”
Some conservatives said voters don't care about the war-of-words unfolding in Washington.
Jenny Beth Martin, who heads the grassroots group Tea Party Patriots, told USA TODAY Thursday that none of the emails she has received from supporters over the past 24 hours were about Bannon and Trump. Instead, she said, people are worried about policy issues such as immigration and health care.
“I think it’s a 24-hour news cycle that has no impact going forward,” said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the conservative Freedom Caucus. Meadows said people are focused on what their lawmakers are doing in D.C. not a feud between Trump and Bannon. Meadows is a close ally of President Trump’s who also has worked closely with Bannon on policy.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen