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Reported Mueller subpoena adds to long list of woes for ostracized Bannon

Steve Bannon arrives on Capitol Hill on Jan. 16, 2018 to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. (CNN Newsource)
Steve Bannon arrives on Capitol Hill on Jan. 16, 2018 to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. (CNN Newsource)
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Former White House strategist Steve Bannon’s troubles continued to grow Tuesday as the isolated onetime ally of President Donald Trump faced questions from Congress and the prospect of a grilling in front of a grand jury over his role as Trump’s campaign CEO.

A week after his ouster from Breitbart News, “Sloppy Steve,” as Trump has labeled him, trudged through the swamp to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors for much of the day in their probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

While Bannon was on the Hill Tuesday, the New York Times reported that he has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Democrats and investigators have zeroed in on Bannon since Michael Wolff quoted him in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” discussing a meeting Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner held with Russians claiming to have incriminating information about opponent Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

Though he did not join the campaign until two months after the fateful meeting at Trump Tower, Bannon’s comments to Wolff suggested he had some insight about it. He called the meeting “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” and he speculated that there was “zero” chance Trump Jr. did not bring the Russians up to meet his father.

According to the Associated Press, House investigators also wanted to question Bannon about the firing of FBI Director James Comey and other “executive actions” Trump has taken in relation to the Russia investigations.

After quotes from Wolff’s book were leaked, President Trump declared that Bannon “lost his mind” and insisted Bannon deserves no credit for his victory. The White House encouraged Breitbart to fire him, which it soon did, and Bannon was disowned by his prominent financial benefactors.

Less than a year earlier, Trump had set off a firestorm of controversy by trying to put Bannon on the National Security Council. Bannon was widely seen as having power in the West Wing that rivaled that of chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Throughout the spring and summer, media reports portrayed Bannon as the manipulator and mastermind behind Trump’s success, a characterization the president did not appreciate. The Trump-Bannon dynamic was mocked on “Saturday Night Live” with Bannon in charge and Trump playing with children’s toys.

Bannon left the administration last summer after retired Gen. John Kelly took over for Priebus as Trump’s chief of staff, but he remained in contact with the president. Back at Breitbart, he saw himself as an outside ally who could help advance Trump’s cause.

The first test of that role came in Alabama, where Bannon backed former Judge Roy Moore to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump supported Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred candidate. Moore won the primary and was quickly embraced by Trump.

That is when it all started falling apart. In November, Moore’s campaign was struck with allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls that the candidate struggled to refute as many Republicans yanked their support. Trump, reportedly advised by Bannon, held firm and urged Alabama voters to support Moore until the end, when Democrat Doug Jones won a Senate seat in the deep red state.

The embarrassing defeat of his preferred candidate soured Trump somewhat on Bannon, but it was Wolff’s book that drove a seemingly irreparable wedge between the two one-time allies.

Initially silent on the book’s revelations, Bannon eventually defended himself by praising Trump and Trump Jr., insisting only Manafort’s involvement in the meeting was treasonous, and holding himself out as a global warrior for Trumpism. It was not enough.

“It is very obvious if you read the book with any care at all that Steve Bannon is the primary source for the book,” said Michael Cohen, acting director of the political management program at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and founder and CEO of Cohen Research Group.

Bannon’s fall was both swift and spectacular, but experts were unsurprised that Trump and his base turned on Bannon so quickly when they perceived that Bannon had turned on Trump.

“Trump’s the headliner,” said Stephanie Martin, a professor at Southern Methodist University who studies conservative social movements. “They didn’t vote for Steve Bannon.”

The political eulogies that filled the media after the fire and fury over “Fire and Fury” last week represented a marked shift from reports last fall that Bannon was embarking on an ambitious effort to challenge Republican incumbents across the country with pro-Trump candidates who would unseat McConnell as majority leader.

"There's a coalition coming together that is going to challenge every Republican incumbent except for Ted Cruz," Bannon told Fox News host Sean Hannity, detailing a long-term plan to remake the GOP in Trump’s image.

In retrospect, that danger was perhaps overstated. Besides Moore, Bannon’s initial stable of candidates included a convicted felon, a five-time loser, and an Arizona state representative who has been widely mocked for holding a town hall on chemtrails.

Even those candidates who once welcomed his backing promptly disassociated from Bannon in the wake of his downfall, hoping to rinse away the sudden stink of his endorsement before Republican voters head to the polls in primaries later this year.

“Steve Bannon is only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received,” said a spokesperson for Arizona Rep. Kelli Ward, who is up against Trump ally and pardon recipient former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the fight to replace Sen. Jeff Flake.

“I think probably the Bannon wing of the Republican Party was posed as a bigger threat than it has materialized to be,” Martin said.

To a degree, she saw the Moore race as part of a longer trend that predated Trump and Bannon. In several races in the last decade, weaker, more extreme candidates like Todd Akin and Christine O’Donnell won the Republican primary and faltered in the general election.

“It’s a mistake to just look at Steve Bannon,” Martin said. “You have to go back all the way to 2008 and look at the Tea Party.”

As evidenced by the grinning Mitch McConnell gif tweeted by McConnell's campaign committee earlier this month, the Bannon seal-of-approval is no longer seen as a threat to the Republican establishment, if it ever was.

“The bold new counter-establishment Bannon sought to create in the wake of Trump’s fluke victory was like most of Bannon’s hustles: contingent on a kind of balls-out bravado and a willingness to lie and scrap with equal intensity,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson wrote in a recent Daily Beast column, adding that “Mitch McConnell has forgotten more about winning elections than Bannon will ever know.”

Former McConnell aide Josh Holmes told Reuters Bannon’s quest to play kingmaker is over.

“A leader without followers is just a guy taking a walk,” he said.

Without Trump’s tacit or explicit support and his Breitbart megaphone, Bannon has little to offer upstart candidates hoping to challenge GOP incumbents.

“He was only ever a threat because he was connected to Trump,” Cohen said. “He was the avatar for Trump. He was the person who was basically Trump on the trail and as soon as it became clear that he wasn’t, there was no personal organization around Bannon. All of Bannon’s political power came from two places: Breitbart and Trump.”

If it was not already clear that Bannon’s face-off with the Trump family has left him alone in the wilderness, a new poll could remove all doubt.

A HuffPost/YouGov survey of Trump voters found 13 percent now view Bannon favorably and two-thirds hold unfavorable views. When he was fired in August, only 26 percent of Trump supporters had negative opinions of Bannon.

Asked whether they agreed more with Trump or Bannon in their recent public criticism of each other, only 1 percent picked Bannon. Two-thirds backed Trump and 21 percent did not agree with either of them. Even among Breitbart readers, 78 percent said they were on Trump’s side and 2 percent stuck with Bannon.

Despite Trump’s protests, experts say Bannon did play a vital role in the campaign, both as chairman in the final months and as head of a popular and virulently pro-Trump media outlet prior to that.

“He was essential to crafting that message and figuring out how to make the campaign viable to the people it needed to reach,” Martin said.

Trump’s family and allies may have been optimistic and enthusiastic, but Bannon knew which voters to appeal to and how to do it.

“If you talk to people on the campaign, they’ll tell you that he had a theory of the case. He had a theory of where Trump could win, how he could win,” Cohen said.

Ultimately, though, the events of the last two weeks served as a reminder that Bannon’s authority flowed from Trump, not the other way around.

“It’s actually very straightforward,” Cohen said. “Power in Washington comes from the principals, it doesn’t come from the staff.”

The reported grand jury subpoena drops a new complication into the Bannon drama. As the first member of the Trump campaign’s inner circle known to be subpoenaed by Mueller, it is unclear exactly what it means for Bannon or for the investigation.

White House aides have said there is no path for Bannon to get back into Trump’s good graces, but given the president’s unpredictability, Cohen said all hope is not lost.

“He is one to change his mind on people, so if I was Steve Bannon I’d do everything I possibly can to get back in his good graces,” he said.

Others have come back from worse, according to Martin, but Bannon’s future in Republican politics is at least momentarily bleak.

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“What’s his next chess move? It’s very unclear what that would be,” she said. “However, people forget, people forgive, people move on.”

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