WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's former chief strategist offered a semi-apology Sunday after days of withering castigation from the White House over his scathing comments in a new book, praising Trump in a public statement that aimed to soften his earlier criticism.
Steve Bannon's mea culpa came as Trump and his senior aides continued a barrage of public insults against him. The president's top policy adviser, Stephen Miller, on Sunday called Bannon an “angry, vindictive person” whose “grotesque comments are so out of touch with reality.”
In a written statement, Bannon asserted that passages in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff in which he was quoted as being critical of Donald Trump Jr.'s contacts with a Russian lawyer – calling their 2016 meeting at Trump Tower “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” – were a mischaracterization.
Bannon insisted his criticism was aimed not at the president's eldest son but rather at former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was fired and is facing charges in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Manafort, who also attended the meeting along with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, should have known “how the Russians operate,” Bannon said.
“Donald Trump Jr. is both a patriot and a good man,” Bannon said. “He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around.”
Bannon was quoted in the book speculating that Trump Jr. told his father about the meeting shortly after it took place but offered no evidence. In Sunday's statement, however, Bannon emphasized that he believes there “was no collusion” between the campaign and Russian operatives, who have been accused by U.S. intelligence agencies of meddling in the presidential election.
“The investigation is a witch hunt,” Bannon said. “I regret that my delay in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr. has diverted attention from the president's historical accomplishments.”
But the White House did not appear eager to forgive Bannon or welcome him back into Trump's good graces. And Trump on Sunday continued to lambaste Wolff on Twitter, denouncing the “Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author.”
Amid questions raised in the book about his mental fitness for office, Trump wrote in the tweet that “Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I!”
On CNN's “State of the Union,” Miller repeatedly slammed both Bannon and Wolff, calling the book a “betrayal of the president” that is “so contrary to the reality of those who work with him.”
Miller added that “the book is best understood as a work of poorly written fiction. The author is a garbage author of a garbage book.”
Wolff defended himself on NBC's “Meet the Press” and suggested the chaos and uncertainty in the White House is worse than his book described.
“If I left out anything, it was probably stuff even more damning. It's that bad,” he said. “It's an extraordinary moment in time. The last several days focused on my book are proof of this. What happened here? What's going on here?”
Wolff went so far as to raise the specter of the 25th Amendment, which allows a president's Cabinet to remove him from office for being unable to perform his duties, although experts said that amendment was designed with the idea of a president being incapacitated by, for example, a coma.
“It is not an exaggeration or unreasonable to say this is 25th Amendment kind of stuff,” Wolff said.
Bannon's statement came after Trump berated him in public and private, mocking the often disheveled Breitbart News chairman on Twitter as “Sloppy Steve” and belittling him as “poor” and “a liar” to Republican leaders during weekend meetings at Camp David, Maryland.
The ugly falling out between the two men – Bannon served as campaign chief executive after Manafort was dismissed and was widely credited with helping Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton – has threatened to distract the White House from its policy agenda in an election year.
Although Bannon was forced out of the White House in August amid escalating feuds with Trump's family members and other senior aides, Trump remained close to him, speaking to him occasionally by phone over objections from advisers.
Bannon had planned to use his continuing clout with the president, along with the news pages at Breitbart, to advance his own nationalist agenda, including threatening to try to unseat Republican incumbents who did not support Bannon's hard-line immigration and anti-globalization positions.
Instead, Trump has sought to punish Bannon, and the former insider appears isolated, not only from the West Wing but also from his outside supporters, including financier Rebekah Mercer. Mercer, who had helped finance many Bannon initiatives, issued a rare public rebuke of him in which she said she would to sever ties with him.
At Breitbart, company leaders have debated whether they could force Bannon from his top perch.
“Bannon's apology had nothing to do with repairing the relationship with Trump,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax and a Trump confidant. “It had everything to do with repairing his relationship with Trump supporters who read Breitbart and big donors he depends on.”
Inside the West Wing, aides said Trump and his top advisers quickly issued an ultimatum: Allies had to choose sides – they either supported the president or they supported Bannon. There could be no middle ground.
Bannon's statement, one person close to him said, was as much about stanching the tide of supporters and potential backers distancing themselves as it was appeasing the president. He continues to privately criticize Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter, who, according to the book, he referred to as “dumb as a brick.”
Bannon also has continued to call Trump a “vessel,” a Bannon ally said, while casting himself as something of a revolutionary in the conservative movement.
He has tried to convince allies in recent days that all will be fine – even texting one “onward!” – but he seems jolted and “even more manic than normal,” in the words of one person who spoke to him.
“He knows he is at his lowest point,” said one associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “He won't tell you that, but he knows it.”
In his statement, Bannon declared that his “support is also unwavering for the president and his agenda. ... President Trump was the only candidate that could have taken on and defeated the Clinton apparatus. I am the only person to date to conduct a global effort to preach the message of Trump and Trumpism; and remain ready to stand in the breach for this president's efforts to make America great again.”
Almost as soon as excerpts from Wolff's book leaked last week, many Bannon associates urged him to issue a statement defending himself. But before he could do so, the White House released a personal statement last week from Trump saying his former adviser had “lost his mind.”