President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC.
WH turmoil happening behind the scenes
04:49 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Trump had dinner with the Chinese President Thursday

One Trump confidant predicts: "Bannon will likely be gone soon"

Palm Beach, Florida CNN  — 

The future of top White House staffers, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, is uncertain, as President Donald Trump is increasingly sending signals he is considering a major shakeup of his leading advisers.

The rise of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has only further isolated Bannon, the chief strategist, from the President and his inner circle.

The pressure has mounted as the President has begun openly questioning the makeup of his senior staff as he looks for a win that could reboot his presidency. Who ultimately prevails in the ideological standoff between blocs led by Kushner and Bannon could determine the trajectory of Trump’s term in the months or years ahead.

He’s begun asking those outside the administration – including wealthy friends and longtime confidantes – whether they approve of the makeup of his staff.

But it’s also not clear yet that Trump is ready to pull the trigger on any changes just yet, the senior GOP source said. Some Republicans think that Trump is not ready to make a change, even though they feel that Priebus, chief of staff, and Bannon should go.

The White House issued a statement Friday pushing back on the speculation.

“Once again this is a completely false story driven by people who want to distract from the success taking place in this administration,” said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman. “The President’s pick for the Supreme Court (a decision that has generational impact) was confirmed today, we hosted multiple foreign leaders this week and the President took bold and decisive military action against Syria last night. The only thing we are shaking up is the way Washington operates as we push the President’s aggressive agenda forward.”

Seat at the table

As Trump sat for dinner Thursday with his Chinese counterpart in an ornately frescoed dining room at Mar-a-Lago, the fresh divides seizing the White House staff were on full display.

Seated next to President Xi Jinping’s wife – two seats down from Trump himself – was Kushner, the commercial real estate scion and husband of Ivanka Trump, who is quickly consolidating power just shy of the Trump administration’s 100 day mark.

Further down the banquet table – sandwiched between two Chinese officials – was Bannon, the President’s controversial chief strategist who multiple administration officials now say is in open conflict with Kushner, leading to new polarization in the West Wing just as Trump hopes to reboot his presidency.

To White House aides, the tableau was telling: While Bannon still has a seat at the table, his position seems to slipping. Kushner, meanwhile, appears ascendent, even as Trump continues to go to both men for advice.

A senior administration official said Priebus held a meeting Friday with Bannon and Kushner to “get them on the same page,” a development first reported by Politico.

The two advisers agreed to “focus on policy,” the official added, and said the meeting was “very positive.” Trump did not attend the meeting.

The official stressed nobody is leaving the White House. “Quite the opposite,” the official said. “All agreed to move forward united.”

‘Unwinnable’ fight

According to a person who have spoken with Bannon in recent days, the bomb-throwing former Breitbart executive has said he feels his entrenched battle with Kushner – and, by proxy, with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and other moderate members of the administration – is “unwinnable” given Trump’s intense loyalty to his own family.

He says he’s determined to continue pressing for key issues that helped propel Trump to the White House: cracking down on illegal immigration and scrapping the federal regulations he says compose an overbearing “administrative state.”

But his standing in Trump’s inner-circle has been diminished. He was stripped of a post on the National Security Council this week, even as Kushner waded further into his father-in-law’s foreign policy affairs with a trip to Iraq and a leadership role in preparing for this week’s meeting with Xi.

Bannon’s ouster from the National Security Council Wednesday was only the latest sign of Kushner’s rise, sources said. While H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, has been working for weeks to find a way to rid the White House foreign policy operation of Bannon, it was ultimately Kushner’s influence that made it happen, sources said.

Bannon deemed reports that he recently threatened to quit “ridiculous.”

But it’s clear his position in the White House is in jeopardy. One Trump confidant predicted: “Bannon will likely be gone soon.”

While Bannon’s influence has waned considerably inside the West Wing since the early days of the administration, he remains a powerful force outside the administration. Nowhere is that more clear than Breitbart News, his former power center that he is still closely aligned with.

One Trump aide, who sits on the Kushner side of the divide, bluntly acknowledged this tension and said it could be a reason for the President to not throw Bannon overboard for fear of what he may do to the presidency he helped build.

‘America First’?

On Thursday night, as Trump was weighing the most consequential national security decision of his presidency, it was the Kushner wing of Trump’s staff who appeared to win over their boss.

Instead of leaning upon the nationalist worldview of Bannon – who has argued against US intervention abroad and was a key architect of Trump’s “America First” policy – Trump dove headfirst into a foreign conflict, ordering airstrikes in Syria to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons on civilians.

The decision was made just ahead of Trump’s dinner with Xi. After landing in Mar-a-Lago Thursday, Trump huddled for a lengthy briefing from his top national security officials in a secure facility installed at the resort, going over options with Defense Secretary James Mattis, McMaster, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Bannon and Kushner sat in on the meeting as well. And while officials declined to detail the specific recommendations of Trump’s top aides, the strikes that the President ordered reflected a break from the nationalist stance he adopted as a candidate that was driven, in large part, by Bannon’s advice.

The divide between Bannon and Kushner has extended beyond the two men themselves, who work from abutting offices just steps from the Oval Office.

Rival factions have emerged, pitting those aides who consider themselves the nationalists – including Bannon and the controversial policy adviser Stephen Miller – against a more global-minded wing, led by Kushner, Cohn and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

Both Cohn and Powell – who both came from the administration directly from Goldman Sachs – are viewed internally as close to Kushner, a dynamic that rankled those in the White House close to Bannon.

Bannon’s faction has come to term Cohn as “Globalist Gary,” an insult for those aligned with the Bannon’s populist views.


Priebus, the chief of staff, has himself grown touchy about the constant questions about his competence and stature in the White House. Priebus appears as uncertain in his post as ever as Trump grows impatient with how his presidency is being viewed, officials said.

Possible replacements began circulating Friday morning, among them House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Gary Cohn, who has emerged as a trusted adviser to Trump as director of the National Economic Council. McCarthy has been an ally to the president since summer, but, as with Cohn, it’s unclear how deep Trump’s trust runs with them.

“He knows how to build a coalition to get legislation passed,” one senior GOP source with knowledge of the list said of McCarthy, despite his inability to help pass the health care plan.

Also on the short-list: Wayne Berman of Blackstone Group, who served as a former assistant Secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush and David Urban of the American Continental Group, and a former chief of staff to the late Sen. Arlen Specter. Urban worked on Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania.

The names were first reported by Axios.