Back in July of 2016, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo popularized Trump’s Razor: a variation on Occams Razor that postulates when assessing any act of Donald Trump, the stupidest possible explanation will be the correct one. It’s worth considering the Trump’s Razor principle in the wake of yesterday’s firing of Chief Adviser Steve Bannon.
Bannon had long been rumored to be on the outside of Trump’s circle of close confidants, and the president had many good political reasons to fire him. But none of the most obvious reasons make sense in the context of Trump’s actions.
The most proximate cause for the firing would be Bannon’s bizarre and rambling on-the-record phone call to Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect. But Bannon didn’t say much in the interview that directly contradicted Trump Administration policy or viewpoints beyond making it clear that U.S. had no military solution for the North Korea problem. Bannon’s obsession with winning a trade war with China was a key theme of the Trump campaign, his hostility to Obama Administration diplomatic appointments is shared by the president, and his insults to both so-called “identity politics” on the left and the “losers” on the far right could only have helped the Trump Administration to change the subject from Charlottesville.
The most logical reason to fire Bannon is that his openly confrontational style and white supremacist politics had become a political liability in an administration that needed a sense of normalcy and better relations with Congress. But it’s fairly clear in wake of Trump’s disastrous press conference in which he stridently defended neo-nazi rallygoers, that President Trump had not grown wary of Bannon’s embrace of ethnonationalism or political aggression. Moreover, Trump’s increasing reliance on the xenophobic Stephen Miller as a communications adviser puts the lie to the notion that Trump is distancing himself politically from the far right. Certainly, no one in Congress or the traditional media infrastructure is giving Trump the benefit of the doubt for firing Bannon after the events of Charlottesville and their aftermath.
Another theory is that Bannon had lost internal struggles within the White House against his ideological opponents. The Washington Post states directly that Chief of Staff John Kelly was responsible for the firing: Kelly conducted a review of White House staff that consistently showed Bannon to be a source of conflict and division. But that puts the cart before the horse: Bannon was causing turmoil in part because his faction was losing the war of ideas within the White House, even as employees circled in and out of the revolving door. Also, Trump would not allow Kelly to dictate a decision like this without his approval. Trump held onto Bannon longer than many of those hostile to the chief advisor, including former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had long been said to be the architect of Bannon’s demise–so much so that it was the kernel of a Saturday Night Live skit back in mid-April—but Kushner’s star has only fallen since then in the wake of increasing scrutiny by Mueller’s probe. That Bannon was fired but Bannon-aligned staffers like Miller and Gorka remain on board suggests there that this is more to this than Kelly, Kushner and others simply pushing him out now.
There is also the theory that Bannon was fired in a purge of “leakers.” Short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci identified Bannon as a “leaker” during his brief tenure, and we know that Trump hates leakers above all else. But it’s not at all clear how many leaks were coming from Bannon or his camp. More important, even a political neophyte like Trump would know that keeping the former Breitbart chief inside the tent leaking out would be safer than having him rejoin Breitbart (as he has already done) and wage a hostile battle from the outside—which is precisely what is about to happen now. The far-right media world has been using Bannon’s continued employment at the White House as a stand-in for their own influence against the faction they call in coded racist anti-Semitic terms the “globalists” and “cuckservatives.” With Bannon gone, watch for them to unleash their fire on an administration that they feel has betrayed hem.
So why was Bannon fired? It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s safest in Trump world to look to the stupidest possible explanation. In most such cases, the answer usually lies in Trump’s bruised and fragile ego and his obsession with dominance. Perhaps Trump had grown tired of the perception that Bannon was the real power behind the throne.
In the context of the interview that immediately preceded his ouster, probably Bannon’s biggest offence was the one that ironically did the most to calm the nerves of most Americans: openly admitting that there was no viable option for military aggression against North Korea. It seems more than plausible that for all the political risks of setting an angry Breitbart chief loose outside the White House, and for all the other better reasons to have tossed Bannon overboard long ago, the thing that finally did him in was undermining Trump’s warmongering bluster on the world stage.
If that’s the case, Bannon’s ouster is going to presage even more volatility and danger coming from the biggest threat to political stability in the White House: the president himself.