President Donald Trump’s epic meltdown this week over his former chief strategist is reminiscent of those Japanese monster movies that always looked kind of fake yet always made it entertaining to watch two larger-than-life antagonists formerly out to destroy humanity attack each other hammer and tong instead. Do you root for Ghidrah or Godzilla? If that three-headed beast attacking Tokyo in those black-and-white classics had also claimed the fire-breathing lizard was irrelevant to his terrifying campaign, the comparison would be seamless. Alas, we never caught that end of the double feature.
Instead what we have is a kaiju-scale Alternative Fact of The Week to ring in the new year. For those who may have missed it, the battle of the alt-right titans began with the leak this week of a new book in which Stephen K. Bannon is quoted as describing as “treasonous” a meeting involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Russian officials, as well as belittling the Trump children generally. In the book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff, as first reported by The Guardian, Mr. Bannon makes it clear he believes the Russian investigation is substantive, that it will involve the president and that the special counsel’s team will “crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV.”
Naturally, that hit all the Trump buttons — Russia, his kids and the especially nagging claim that Donald Trump ever needed someone else’s advice. In a written statement, President Trump responded that his former chief strategist had “lost his mind” and that he had “very little to do with our historic victory” in 2016 and was “only in it for himself.” While we can’t fact-check the “lost his mind” part without a complete medical evaluation (and frankly, both parties in this claim could probably use a little rotation, balance job and pressure check between the ears), the business about Mr. Bannon having “little to do” with Mr. Trump’s victory seems like a whopper.
Let’s review the record. Tied to major donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer and CEO of Breitbart News, an influential right-wing media outlet, Mr. Bannon was named chief executive of the Trump campaign in August of 2016. At the time, Mr. Trump described him as a “fantastic person” who was hired because “I want to win.” Also at the time, Hillary Clinton was ahead of Mr. Trump in the polls by about a dozen points. Three months later, Mr. Trump was the victor. After the election, the president-elect named Mr. Bannon his chief strategist and described him as an “equal partner” with chief of staff Reince Priebus. He even elevated him briefly to the principals committee of the National Security Council, something no previous president had done for a member of his political staff.
Say what you will about Mr. Bannon’s personal politics, his fondness for the alt-right and disdain for traditional Republicans, he cut a wide swath in the White House. Mr. Trump’s choice to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, the president’s disdain for foreign trade agreements, and his support for a fringe candidate like Roy Moore in Alabama have the Bannon influence stamped all over them. Even Mr. Bannon’s departure from the White House last August didn’t seem to signal a serious breach with Mr. Trump. Instead, both sides were talking about how Mr. Bannon was now free to recruit GOP Senate challengers more in the Trump political mold and use Breitbart as a potent political weapon. It seemed more like an unshackling than a firing or even a mutual parting of the ways.
Granted, Mr. Bannon hasn’t proven himself much of a kingmaker since the 2016 election. But did he really deserve to get the ultimate Trump put down — a “cease and desist” letter from a Trump lawyer, allegedly over his criticism of the president and his family? Nevertheless, if there’s one thing those monster movies proved, it’s that Godzilla could take a punch, or a freeze ray, or a rocket in the tail, and bounce right back. President Trump may see Mr. Bannon as off the populist, nationalist reservation at the moment, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to make it into the sequel — as horrifying as that might be to most Americans.
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