Bannon Tries Backing Away From Explosive Comments

Speaking out five days after he was quoted harshly criticizing the president and his eldest son, Stephen K. Bannon tried to reverse his statements.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s supporters moved aggressively on Sunday to counter revelations in a new book that some of his closest aides believe he is unstable and ill equipped for office, an assault that prompted the source of some of the most damning accusations, Stephen K. Bannon, to issue a striking mea culpa.

The multipronged attack, punctuated by a heated appearance on a Sunday talk show by a top White House adviser who was once a close ally of Mr. Bannon, was a sign of how the White House has been reeling from the allegations.

The adviser, Stephen Miller, who had been aligned with Mr. Bannon in pushing the president’s nationalist agenda, derided him on Sunday as a fame-seeking blowhard and the book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff, as a work of fiction.

Soon after came a rare and lengthy statement of repentance from Mr. Bannon, who over the last week found himself isolated from his political allies and cut off from his financial patrons. Speaking out five days after he was quoted harshly criticizing the president and his eldest son, a delay he said he regretted, Mr. Bannon tried to reverse his statements completely, calling Donald Trump Jr. “both a patriot and a good man.”

He is quoted in the book as calling the younger Mr. Trump’s meeting with Russians in 2016 “treasonous.” But in the statement on Sunday, first reported by Axios, he said his reference to “treason” had been aimed not at the president’s son, but at another campaign official who attended the Trump Tower meeting, Paul Manafort.

Calling Mr. Manafort “a seasoned campaign professional with experience and knowledge of how the Russians operate,” Mr. Bannon wrote that Mr. Manafort “should have known they are duplicitous, cunning and not our friends.”

Mr. Bannon is not known for second-guessing himself and views apologies as signs of weakness. Nowhere in his statement on Sunday did he actually say he was sorry. But the turn of events represented a stunning reversal of fortune for a man who once operated with such autonomy in the White House that, as chief strategist, he reported only to the president himself. And he reiterated his allegiance in his statement, saying, “My support is also unwavering for the president and his agenda.”

While the attack on Mr. Bannon may have prompted an unusual expression of contrition from him, the collective force of the attempts to defend the president also ensured that the questions about his mental fitness raised in the book will continue to command attention. This comes as Mr. Trump enters a critical period needing to pass legislation like a spending measure to keep the government open.

The president returned to the White House on Sunday from Camp David, where he had held meetings with Republican leaders in Congress, cabinet officials and senior staff members to set priorities for the year. After an initial message on Twitter that focused on policy matters like border security, the opioid epidemic, infrastructure and the status of young undocumented immigrants, Mr. Trump joined the offensive against the book and the news media coverage of it.

“I’ve had to put up with the Fake News from the first day I announced that I would be running for President,” he wrote on Twitter. “Now I have to put up with a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author.”

Mr. Bannon has been the target of derision by the president, who has labeled him “Sloppy Steve” and has said he played a far lesser role in Mr. Trump’s political rise than he has been given credit for. Even out of favor, Mr. Bannon has said he remains a champion of the president’s agenda.

But Mr. Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser, acidly criticized Mr. Bannon in an interview on CNN, calling his comments in the book “out of touch with reality,” “vindictive” and “grotesque.”

In a week that held one indignity after another for Mr. Bannon, who has fancied himself a revolutionary poised to tear down the Republican establishment, the words of Mr. Miller may have cut the deepest.

Mr. Miller became a Bannon protégé of sorts during the time Mr. Miller worked for Attorney General Jeff Sessions when Mr. Sessions was in the Senate. He became one of the leading voices on the right calling for tighter controls on legal and illegal immigration.

The two men shared not just a nationalist-tinged conservative view on policy but a desire for political provocation. Mr. Bannon and Mr. Trump were delighted by and cheered on some of Mr. Miller’s more infamous and combative episodes with the news media, like when he chastised a CNN reporter for displaying “cosmopolitan bias” in his understanding of the White House’s immigration positions.

Mr. Miller, however, bristled at the suggestion that he was a Bannon creation, a perception Mr. Bannon himself often encouraged.

Mr. Bannon’s allies understood the White House’s moves this past week to be an act of ruthless political war much like Mr. Bannon himself might have waged during his time in the administration.

They said they believed that the president and senior aides like Kellyanne Conway, who is close to Rebekah Mercer, the billionaire who issued a rare statement last week disavowing Mr. Bannon, were sending activists and donors a clear message: He is persona non grata in conservative politics. Ms. Mercer is a partial owner of Breitbart News, the hard-right website where Mr. Bannon is executive chairman but where his future is now in doubt.



The Trump Team’s Best Defense? Offense

Stephen Miller's recent defense of his boss is symbolic of how the Trump administration deals with criticism — with verbal uppercuts. Defending your boss is nothing new. But the way they do it is.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” That now famous press briefing marked the beginning of the Trump administration and became a punchline. “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys — period.” But nearly one year later, similar verbal uppercuts on the press have defined how the Trump administration reacts to criticism. Defending your boss is nothing new. But the way they do it is. “Negative — No, that it’s O.K. — no, excuse me. Oh, no, no, no, no.” “But there’s a difference — there’s a very big — I’m sorry. I’m not finished.” “That is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you’ve ever said.” On Sunday, it happened again. Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller was asked about the president’s mental stability. Here’s how he responded. “But I think in the toxic environment that you’ve created here in CNN and cable news, which is a real crisis of legitimacy for your network. And we saw it, of course, with the extremely fake news you reported about the Don Jr. and WikiLeaks story.” And it didn’t end well. “You’ve attemped to filibuster by talking about your fights with the president.” “No, hold on a sec.” “I want to ask you a question.” “And I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time. Thank you, Stephen.” “As Republican lawmakers call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign ...” Since Trump came into office, his administration has vowed to fight the news media “tooth and nail” over what it sees as unfair attacks. Perhaps no one does this more often or more aggressively than the president himself. “Wait a minute. I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news.” “Buzzfeed, which is a failing pile of garbage.” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway does this often. “This president is not trusted by the American people.” “No, that’s wrong. You know what’s a problem for this nation, that you refuse — CNN used to be a place where people can tune in and get the news all day long. Now they get spin and people’s opinions.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, does too. “There’s a very big difference between making honest mistakes and purposefully misleading the American people, something that happens regularly. You can’t say — I’m not done.” H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, defended Trump after reports that he revealed highly classified intelligence to Russia. “I think the real issue, and I think what I’d like to see really debated more, is that our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality.” While every president has grumbled about coverage, Trump has proved to be the most vocal in at least a generation. After Miller’s recent appearance, Trump tweeted out his support. So it appears that in Trump’s eyes, it’s not only important what you say, but how you say it.

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Stephen Miller's recent defense of his boss is symbolic of how the Trump administration deals with criticism — with verbal uppercuts. Defending your boss is nothing new. But the way they do it is.

On Sunday, it was Mr. Miller who had the political leverage. He cast as false the perception that Mr. Bannon had ever played a Svengali-like role in the presidential campaign and the White House.

He said Mr. Bannon’s role had been “greatly exaggerated,” even as the CNN host Jake Tapper ticked off a long list of policies he said Mr. Bannon had played a key role in formulating.

In “Fire and Fury,” Mr. Bannon said Mr. Trump had “lost his stuff,” and Mr. Miller also tried on Sunday to counter the concerns about the president’s mental state. Echoing the president’s own words from Saturday, he called Mr. Trump a “political genius” who could rattle off complete paragraphs on the fly in response to news events and then deliver them “flawlessly” to a campaign audience.

The interview, on the program “State of the Union,” quickly grew heated as Mr. Tapper accused Mr. Miller of being “obsequious” and speaking to an “audience of one.” Before it ended, Mr. Tapper told Mr. Miller that he was wasting his audience’s time.

Mr. Tapper then turned to the camera, even as Mr. Miller was still speaking, and cut to a commercial.

A short time later, the president praised his aide on Twitter, saying that Mr. Miller had “destroyed” Mr. Tapper in the interview.

In addition to assailing Mr. Bannon, Mr. Miller sharply criticized Mr. Wolff and his book, saying it “is best understood as a work of very poorly written fiction.”

Mr. Wolff, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” stood by the accuracy of his book and contradicted the White House account of how often he had talked to the president.

White House officials said their records showed that Mr. Wolff had last talked to the president in February, but Mr. Wolff said he had talked to the president several times after that. In all, Mr. Wolff said, he talked to the president for about three hours, which also included interviews during the campaign.

He said that Mr. Trump had even initially flattered him about the project, and that he had told interview subjects that “the president said he likes this idea” of a book.

Mr. Wolff also repeated an assertion in the book that many in the White House had talked about the possible invocation of the 25th Amendment, a constitutional provision that permits a president’s powers to be transferred to the vice president when the vice president and a majority of the cabinet or a body created by Congress conclude that the president is incapable of performing his duties.

“This is alarming in every way,” Mr. Wolff said, adding, “This is worse than everybody thought.”

Appearing on Sunday talk shows, others in Mr. Trump’s inner circle dismissed any such worries.

Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, said that he had no concerns about Mr. Trump’s ability to receive and process the kind of intelligence typically presented to presidents, and that Mr. Wolff’s descriptions of Mr. Trump’s mental state were “pure fantasy.”

“I’m with him almost every day,” Mr. Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We talk about some of the most serious matters facing America and the world, complex issues. The president is engaged. He understands the complexity. He asks really difficult questions of our team at C.I.A.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who was briefly a rival to Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination and, until recently, had been a frequent critic of the president, joined his defenders on Sunday.

“I’ve enjoyed his company,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “He beat me like a dog. I’ve said everything I know to say about him — I’ve used every adjective on the planet. I lost. He won.”

“I don’t think he’s crazy,” Mr. Graham continued. “I think he’s had a very successful 2017. And I want to help him where I can. And we should all want him to be successful. He’s got a lot on his plate.”

With Republican control of the House and possibly the Senate at risk in 2018, Mr. Trump cannot afford another year dominated by news of West Wing dysfunction.

“The reality is people want the president to deliver, and this is a side show,” said Sam Nunberg, a former aide to the Trump campaign who is now close with Mr. Bannon.

Mr. Nunberg added that the president’s disavowals of his former strategist would mean little to voters. “The irony is the president is going to have a rude awakening when numerous candidates during the midterms respectfully decline his offer to campaign with them,” he said.

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