President Donald Trump’s relationship with his populist sherpa and sometime-confidant Steve Bannon has had ups, downs and in-betweens over the course of their years-long relationship.
Bannon was arrested on a boat off the eastern shore of Connecticut on Thursday and charged with defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of a fundraising campaign purportedly aimed at supporting Trump’s border wall – making him the latest of Trump’s associates to find himself on the wrong side of the law.
Bannon had been on the boat for the last several weeks, people familiar with the situation said. He would tell people he was “at sea.”
“I feel very badly,” Trump said in the Oval Office after Bannon’s arrest. “I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time.”
Like most of Trump’s professional associates, Bannon has both been welcomed to the inner circle and banished to the coldest reaches of the orbit – sometimes in the same stretch of months.
He was one of Trump’s earliest political advisers, helping shape a populist outrage artist and cultural warrior from a New York real estate development who had spent his career boasting about his wealth.
They met years before Trump launched his bid for president, introduced by David Bossie, another of Trump’s informal advisers who ran the conservative group Citizens United.
As Trump mulled a presidential run in the years after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, Bannon helped him hone a message rooted in White grievance, arch-nationalism and populist outage – all themes Bannon was stoking at the time on the website he ran, Breitbart.
In some ways they were an unlikely couple. Bannon was known for a cavalier attitude toward his appearance, sometimes appearing disheveled on the campaign trail. Trump has maintained a fastidious relationship to his looks and harshly judged others for their’s.
Yet in other ways they were alike. Though both are worth millions (Bannon is a former investment banker), they each saw value in appealing to working-class Americans fed up with elites. And each saw the Republican Party establishment as out of touch with its voters.
A surprise victory in 2016 brought Trump and Bannon to the White House, where the chief strategist was given West Wing workspace steps from the Oval Office and where he enjoyed outsized influence on the President and on policy.
The two men enjoyed a singular chemistry that rankled other advisers – some of whom had only known Trump for a matter of months and were not entirely aligned with his populist agenda.
His elevated stature was reflected when, early in the administration, he was given a spot on the National Security Council, outraging professional foreign policy types but thrilling those Trump supporters who viewed his presence as a sign of nationalist policies to come.
But behind the scenes, all was not rosy. Bitter infighting plagued the West Wing on matters of policy and professional conduct. Internal feuds erupted over trade, immigration and foreign wars. Bannon was accused of leaking negative information about other staffers.
And Trump himself grew disillusioned, particularly when Bannon appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline “The Great Manipulator.”
By August 2017, he was out – cast aside as a new chief of staff, John Kelly, made changes he hoped would streamline decision-making. His departure also came amid uproar over Trump’s equivocal comments about White nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia – remarks that his critics said echoed Bannon’s views.
Things seemed fine for a while.
“I have a very good relationship, as you know, with Steve Bannon,” Trump said in October 2017.
But by early the next year, the relationship had soured. Bannon was quoted in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” as labeling Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign “treasonous.” And Trump lashed out.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” he wrote in a statement. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
Things devolved from there. In a tweet, the President labeled his onetime friend “Sloppy Steve.” By early 2019, Trump was telling people around him he hadn’t spoken to Bannon in years.
Bannon, meanwhile, worked to boost conservative candidates in the United States and to help kindle right-wing populist movements in Europe – taking him out of the President’s vantage during a tumultuous period in the United States.
But when impeachment proceedings began to escalate late last year, Bannon saw an opportunity to reenter Trump’s good graces. Joining up with Trump’s former communications director Jason Miller, the pair launched a podcast defending Trump during the proceedings, which Trump praised privately.
Bannon began to appear more regularly in conservative media, praising the President’s actions in places he knew it would be seen. Trump responded positively, speaking highly of Bannon to advisers after seeing his appearances.
Bannon has no formal or informal role in Trump’s campaign, but he does communicate with people who are advising Trump and remain in his inner circle. Miller recently returned to the President’s campaign as a senior adviser.
And Bannon has offered his campaign advice to Trump in the form of public comments, suggesting Trump use the power of his office to make the case for reelection.
“You act like president of the United States, you take action like the president of the United States, you govern like you are president of the United States, you are going to be reelected,” Bannon told a conservative radio program last month.
Still, Trump and Bannon have not communicated directly. Instead aides who hoped to bring Bannon back into the fold would often point out when he praised Trump on a daily podcast that focused intently on Covid-19 and China. And Trump told Fox News last month that Bannon’s greatest asset now – as his campaign struggles to make up ground against Joe Biden – is to remain supportive, but on the sidelines.
“Steve Bannon’s been much better not being involved,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s keep Steve out there, he’s doing a good job.’ But they’re all being – they’re all involved.”