On Tuesday, Steve Bannon called Robert Kuttner, the editor of The American Prospect, a liberal policy magazine. He never asked for the conversation to be off the record — which seems to have been a catastrophic mistake for Bannon, one that someone with his media experience should not have made. The article (“Steve Bannon, Unrepentant”) has been taken down, or at least the link is invalid. But a reader grabbed the cached version and sent it to me as a PDF. [UPDATE: The link is back.]
It’s stunning. It is impossible to believe that Bannon wanted this to be on the record, unless he’s playing twelve-dimensional chess. Excerpts:
Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Bannon went on to describe his battle inside the administration to take a harder line on China trade, and not to fall into a trap of wishful thinking in which complaints against China’s trade practices now had to take a backseat to the hope that China, as honest broker, would help restrain Kim.
“To me,” Bannon said, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
So, right there he undercuts his boss on North Korea.
Bannon explained that his strategy is to battle the trade doves inside the administration while building an outside coalition of trade hawks that includes left as well as right. Hence the phone call to me.
There are a couple of things that are startling about this premise. First, to the extent that most of the opponents of Bannon’s China trade strategy are other Trump administration officials, it’s not clear how reaching out to the left helps him. If anything, it gives his adversaries ammunition to characterize Bannon as unreliable or disloyal.
More puzzling is the fact that Bannon would phone a writer and editor of a progressive publication (the cover lines on whose first two issues after Trump’s election were “Resisting Trump” and “Containing Trump”) and assume that a possible convergence of views on China trade might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm on white nationalism.
The question of whether the phone call was on or off the record never came up. This is also puzzling, since Steve Bannon is not exactly Bambi when it comes to dealing with the press. He’s probably the most media-savvy person in America.
And get this:
I asked Bannon about the connection between his program of economic nationalism and the ugly white nationalism epitomized by the racist violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s reluctance to condemn it. Bannon, after all, was the architect of the strategy of using Breitbart to heat up white nationalism and then rely on the radical right as Trump’s base.
He dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it: “Ethno-nationalism — it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”
“These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.
From his lips to Trump’s ear.
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Steve Bannon, on the alt-right: “These guys are a collection of clowns.”
Either Bannon is a genius, or he’s reckless and crazy. Or maybe he’s both, but his recklessness outran his genius this one time. I can’t see how he survives having talked so loosely to a journalist — a liberal journalist at that — about administration infighting and the White House’s approach to North Korea and China. We’ll see, I guess. Just another day at the Dumpster fire.
UPDATE: Now Bannon is saying he didn’t think he was giving an interview. A guy phones an editor at a left-wing magazine that has been harsh on Trump and then dishes on his colleagues, and undermines the president’s foreign policy stance? A guy who is suspected of being a big leaker? Gen. Kelly ain’t gonna like this.