In the wake of a site-crashing interview with the founder and editor of The American Prospect—in which he talked about administration in-fighting, tensions with North Korea, looming economic war with China, and his high hopes for Democrat's focus on identity politics—top Trump advisor Steve Bannon, according to responses gathered by Axios, is possibly in pretty deep(er) shit just about now with his White House colleagues.
One person, described by Axios' Jonathan Swan as "not an enemy of [Bannon's]," indicated the consquences of the interview could be severe.
"Since Steve apparently enjoys casually undermining U.S. national security," the White House staff member reportedly said, "I'll put this in terms he'll understand: This is DEFCON 1-level bad."
Steve Bannon's colleagues can't believe what they're reading tonight — and here's the twist: neither can Bannon. https://t.co/SRyxJDv5Bc
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) August 17, 2017
To begin with, it seemed a strange choice for Bannon to call the Prospect's Robert Kuttner, who confessed he was a "little stunned" to receive a message from Bannon's assistant that the former head of the right-wing Breitbart news outlet—now one of Trump's most contentious and controversial top aides—would be calling him to bounce around ideas.
While some suggested Bannon might be acting the master strategist and somehow making a "play" with his call to Kuttner, Swan argued emphatically his belief this was not the case. "You might read some takes tomorrow saying Bannon is playing 5D chess & this was part of a devious strategy," he tweeted. "Those takes will be wrong."
Kuttner appeared on CNN Wednesday evening and said that his talk with Bannon revealed to him the man's "hubris" and "arrogance":
According to Kuttner, who also writes in the article that Bannon never once brought up the idea that the conversation would be "off the record," the motivation for the call was Kuttner's recent column on the subject of U.S. and North Korean tensions and the political and economic implications with China they entail. The argument of the article, entitled U.S. vs. North Korea: The Winner? China, had impressed Bannon. "You absolutely nailed it," Bannon said.
"We're at economic war with China," Bannon continued. "It's in all their literature. They're not shy about saying what they're doing. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path. On Korea, they’re just tapping us along. It's just a sideshow."
Kuttner goes on to relate Bannon's description of "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 [North Korea's Kim Jong-un]."
"To me," Bannon confessed, "the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that."
Kuttner explained how Bannon's vision of the necessary Trump strategy will be to file "a complaint under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act against Chinese coercion of technology transfers from American corporations" and that official objections to steel and aluminum dumping would follow. "We're going to run the tables on these guys," Bannon explained. "We've come to the conclusion that they're in an economic war and they're crushing us."
Remarking on internal tensions, Bannon said his rivals in the White House and elsewhere in government "were wetting themselves" over North Korean tensions, but he assured Kuttner that opponents of his plan to target China economically were actively being marginalized.
Bannon told Kuttner that Trump wants to proceed, calling it his "default position," but that "trade doves" inside the White House were stalling the effort. In fact, the reaching out to Kuttner becomes central to the story at this point, as Bannon apparently perceives potential allies in left-wing critics of the trade policies preferred by corporate elites—the same kind of people who Bannon derisively terms "globalists." Kuttner dismissed that idea as naive, calling it a "puzzling" leap to think "possible convergence of views on China trade might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm" of the white nationalism Bannon represents and has championed.
Of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, Bannon dismissed any responsibility he had for cultivating or making space for such movements and dismissed the participants as "losers," "a fringe element," and "a collection of clowns." On the other hand, and according to separate reporting by Swan Wednesday night, Bannon is among those in the White House standing in approval of Trump's performance at Tuesday press conference, seeing it "not as the lowest point in his presidency, but as a 'defining moment,' where Trump decided to fully abandon the 'globalists' and side with 'his people.'"
But Bannon in his remarks to Kuttner also seemingly played his hand on the Democratic Party's response to the rise of Trump's brand of politics built around xenophobia, discrimination, and attacks on political correctness. "The longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got 'em," Bannon said. "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."
The next step for Bannon and Kuttner's relationship? Kuttner said he received an invitation to come to the White House after Labor Day to discuss these issues further.
If, of course, as Kuttner quipped, Bannon's "still there."