WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon on Sunday sought to back away from derogatory comments ascribed to him about Trump’s son in a controversial book that sparked White House outrage and could threaten his job.
Bannon, who was ousted from the White House in August, was quoted in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by journalist Michael Wolff, as saying a June 2016 meeting with a group of Russians attended by Donald Trump Jr. and his father’s top campaign officials was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.”
The president said Bannon had lost his mind, and the White House suggested the hard-right news site Breitbart News should part ways with him as its executive chairman.
“Donald Trump, Jr. is both a patriot and a good man. He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around,” Bannon said in a statement released on Sunday, adding that his comments were directed at Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and not aimed at the president’s son.
“I regret that my delay in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr. has diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments in the first year of his presidency,” Bannon said.
Bannon claimed in his statement that the comments in the book were aimed not at Trump or his family but at Paul Manafort — Trump’s former campaign chairman, who resigned and is facing charges as part of special counsel Robert S. Muller III’s Russia investigation — who, Bannon said, should have known how the Russians — whom he called “duplicitous, cunning and not our friends” — operate.
“To reiterate, those comments were not aimed at Don Jr.,” Bannon said. In the book, however, Bannon is quoted as saying that Mueller’s investigation would probably focus on money laundering and that “they’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”
The statement continued: “Everything I have to say about the ridiculous nature of the Russian ‘collusion’ investigation I said on my 60 Minutes interview. There was no collusion and the investigation is a witch hunt. I regret that my delay in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr has diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments in the first year of his presidency.”
As soon as excerpts from Wolff’s book leaked out in the media, many of Bannon’s friends and colleagues urged him to release a statement defending himself.
But before he could do so, the White House released a personal statement from Trump, who claimed that his former adviser had “lost his mind.”
Those close to Bannon said that as the controversy unfolded, he seemed eager to find a way to try to repair his relationship with the president.
In his statement Sunday, first provided to Axios, Bannon praises both Trump Jr. and his father.
“Donald Trump, Jr. is both a patriot and a good man,” Bannon says in the statement. “He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around. My support is also unwavering for the president and his agenda — as I have shown daily in my national radio broadcasts, on the pages of Breitbart News and in speeches and appearances from Tokyo and Hong Kong to Arizona and Alabama. 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.”
Bannon was pushed from the White House in August yet remained in Trump’s orbit, with the two men speaking by phone occasionally.
Many in the president’s circle had been urging Trump for weeks to publicly distance himself from Bannon and used the fallout from the book to persuade the president to sever ties with him.
The president was furious with Bannon, and he and his team quickly issued a private ultimatum: Allies had to choose sides — they either support the president or they support Bannon.
There could be no middle ground.
Bannon’s statement seemed aimed at trying to fix the rupture.
Already isolated from the Republican Party establishment, the fight over the book has left Bannon further alienated, with one of his chief financial backers, Rebekah Mercer, issuing a rare public rebuke of him in which she promised to sever ties.
At Breitbart, where Bannon is chairman, there was even debate among the company’s leaders over whether they could force Bannon from his top perch.