Highly doubtful, but it’s shrewd of the White House to hint to reporters that he did. If you want to destroy Steve Bannon’s credibility with Trump’s base, the quickest path is by suggesting that he’s in league with the “fake news media” on Russiagate.
Leaking the rumor to Trump’s least favorite network is an especially nice touch.
Source close to White House tells me that Bannon was “aware of the fact that WH counsel misled POTUS about his authority to fire Comey” — which was in NYT story last night — and notes that the NYT story appeared after POTUS began attacking Bannon publicly. 🤔
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) January 5, 2018
Ed wrote about the Times story earlier. There’s a lot packed in there — Trump ordering the White House counsel to pressure Sessions to un-recuse himself from Russiagate and Sessions allegedly digging around for dirt on Comey, a claim the DOJ furiously denies knowing how it would wreck Sessions’s ability to command loyalty at the department if it went unchecked. But there was also this frightening detail about how little Trump’s deputies supposedly trust him with information:
After that hearing, Mr. Trump began to discuss openly with White House officials his desire to fire Mr. Comey. This unnerved some inside the White House counsel’s office, and even led one of Mr. McGahn’s deputies to mislead the president about his authority to fire the F.B.I. director.
The lawyer, Uttam Dhillon, was convinced that if Mr. Comey was fired, the Trump presidency could be imperiled, because it would force the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether Mr. Trump was trying to derail the Russia investigation…
Mr. Dhillon, who had earlier told Mr. Trump that he needed cause to fire Mr. Comey, never corrected the record, withholding the conclusions of his research.
The president doesn’t need cause to fire the director of the FBI. Dhillon knew it, further legal research confirmed it — heck, most of the public is probably aware of it. The president can fire virtually any executive-branch political appointee he likes. But Trump didn’t know it and one of his own lawyers was willing to lie to his face about it to steer him away from an ill-advised course of action. That’s deeply unethical and shows you how insubordinate some of POTUS’s most trusted staffers are willing to be, ostensibly in the name of protecting him from himself. (Never mind that Dhillon was right about the fallout from firing Comey.) It also makes you wonder how often this sort of thing goes on among his national security team. What sort of lies are McMaster, Mattis, and Pompeo telling Trump to prevent him from doing something rash in, say, North Korea or Iran?
But I digress. If you believe Tapper’s source, Bannon knew all about the episode with Dhillon. And now, suddenly, the Failing New York Times knows too. Could that really be a coincidence? I think … yeah, almost certainly. The Bannon/Trump divorce feels like it’s a week old but the first damning quotes about Don Jr only appeared publicly 48 hours ago. For Bannon, the first 24 hours afterward were probably entirely consumed with damage control, attempts to get back into Trump’s good graces, and desperately pleading with the Mercers and Larry Solov not to eject him from his “killing machine” at Breitbart. In fact, if you believe Vanity Fair, the damage control started late. Initially Bannon didn’t even realize how irritated Trump would be with him:
While Bannon had granted Wolff extensive access, he was caught off guard by the book’s rollout and hadn’t read the Guardian piece. Working from the Breitbart Embassy, steps from Capitol Hill, Bannon quickly organized a series of conference calls with his kitchen Cabinet that included, among others, political adviser Andy Surabian; Breitbart Washington editor Matt Boyle; communications strategist Arthur Schwartz; and Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam. According to sources briefed on the conversations, Bannon denied making the comments about Trump Jr. to Wolff, but was resistant to the idea of issuing a statement disputing them. He explained to his advisers that Trump Jr. “surely knew” he would never say those things to a journalist. “Steve was like, ‘I don’t respond to bullshit attacks,’” a source briefed on the conversation said. (Bannon declined to comment).
The other people on the line told Bannon he was badly misjudging the situation. “Steve can be kind of delusional,” a Bannon ally told me…
Bannon, predictably, reacted to Trump’s statement by digging in. He refused to issue his own statement and told advisers the controversy would blow over. But as some advisers had warned, Bannon’s situation deteriorated rapidly over the next 24 hours.
“Friends of the Mercers working at the White House privately shared their view that Bannon’s ouster from Breitbart would be well-received by the president,” sources told WaPo, with one adding, “The president’s take is that everyone has to now make a choice: ‘It’s me or it’s Steve.’” Bannon suddenly had a seven-alarm fire on his hands, not just with Trump but with his Breitbart benefactors, his Senate candidates — everyone. That’s a lot of distractions while you’re supposedly busy leaking a bombshell story to America’s most famous paper. Even if you wouldn’t put it past Bannon to do it (I certainly wouldn’t), remember that he knows better than anyone how fickle Trump can be with his frenemies. Look no further than Mitt Romney, who savaged Trump during the 2016 primaries and was a finalist for Secretary of State less than a year later. Unless Bannon’s calculated that *he* doesn’t need *Trump* anymore, he has every reason to lie low, play the loyal soldier, and wait for the Trumpy winds to change and return him to favor. Leaking an “obstruction of justice” story to the Times would make that less likely.
But this is Steve “#WAR” Bannon we’re talking about. Maybe he can’t be patient. Maybe it’s an affront to his tough-guy image and his delusions of populist grandeur to have Trump pushing him around the playground this way. Solution: Blackmail. He’ll leak something damaging on Trump to the media as a shot across the bow of the White House, warning them to back off. “I know where the bodies are buried,” he might be telling Trump, “and I’ll give them all up to the Times unless you stop the insults and protect my position at Breitbart.” The Times story may be the political equivalent of a kidnapper mailing a hostage’s finger to his family. It would be risky to antagonize Trump that way; you never know what a loose-cannon president’s going to do, particularly when he’s being threatened. But that *could* explain the NYT story. I’m still skeptical but if you’re looking for a scenario in which Tapper’s source may be onto something, there you go.