Donald Trump has had a couple of awful weeks, all self-inflicted wounds. By Friday, his presidency seemed to be spiraling out of control in the aftermath of his morally obtuse defense of the actions of white supremacists and Nazis at Charlottesville. Prominent business leaders moved to separate themselves from his administration. Republican elected officials openly criticized his remarks. Even some members of the White House staff seemed stunned by his comments. The image of General John Kelly, his new chief of staff, squirming and looking incredibly uncomfortable at Trump’s press conference, may have said even more than the torrent of editorials and press criticism that rained down on the President.
At this moment, however, the story dominating the headlines is the firing of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Depending on your perspective, Bannon had been Trump’s puppet master, the architect of the Administration’s right-wing nationalist agenda, a shameless self-promoter, the brains behind Trump’s bluster, or some combination of the above. Many conservatives have seen him as their man in the White House while liberals have almost universally regarded him as an evil Svengali and have called for his removal from Day One of the Trump Presidency.
Rumors have been swirling for days if not weeks that Bannon would soon be forced out. After all, he kept getting the kind of praise and attention that Trump can’t stand to see anyone else receiving. Kelly’s appointment, intended to bring order to the chaos of the White House, suggested that there wouldn’t be room for both of them. According to press coverage, Kelly pushed Trump to get rid of Bannon.
Amidst the celebrations, including the gloating, about Bannon’s firing, a critical question remains however: what exactly has changed?
Trump has not retracted, modified or disavowed his position on “both sides” being responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. He continues to show no appreciation of the historical significance of the Nazis, the KKK or the fact that the Civil War was fought primarily to determine whether slavery would continue to exist. He still sees “good people” among those marching in Charlottesville with guns, clubs and symbols of hatred and bigotry. He continues to show more concern for the fate of Confederate statues than the welfare of American citizens.
The President still has his twitter account. He is still a narcissist with little or no impulse control. He still resists being briefed on world issues. His relationship with Congress continues to worsen just as a series of critical issues–raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget, trying to reform the tax system–have fast approaching deadlines with no clear path to resolution.
And in case you had forgotten in the most recent avalanche of news, Trump still has Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether his campaign knew about and collaborated with the Russians, and, perhaps more ominously for the President, what financial relationships Trump has had with Russians.
Let’s also remember that Kim Jong-un still has nuclear weapons, ISIS is still in Syria and Iraq, and this country’s longest war still rages in Afghanistan. All of these hot spots pose major challenges to the Preident regardless of where Steve Bannon is.
Bannon certainly encouraged Trump to always cater to a base that responds positively to calls for a wall between the United States and Mexico, that cheers his Muslim ban, and that sleeps better at night believing that there is no place in the US military for transgender Americans and no sympathy for members of the LBGQT community. Every indication we have so far is that Trump really didn’t need convincing to adopt those positions. Don’t expect a kinder and gentler Trump now that Bannon has left the White House.
To what extent Bannon is really gone is not all that clear either. Do you remember when Corey Lewandowski was fired as the head of Trump’s presidential campaign? He continues to talk regularly with Trump, is seen wandering the halls of the White House and has made a lot of money promising his clients special access to the President. Does anyone really believe that things will be any different with Bannon?
At the end of the day, Bannon’s departure from the White House is more smoke than fire. There will not be a new Trump as a result. Moreover, Bannon will feel even less constrained back at Breitbart to advocate for his extreme views and attack anyone whom he sees as an obstacle, including prominent Republicans. And just as Trump was incapable of criticizing the racists and anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville, he will continue to treat Bannon as a kindred soul, a “good person” who happens to be spewing hate.