WASHINGTON — White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is privately offering shifting and conflicting explanations for the strikingly candid interview that could further imperil his already shaky standing inside the West Wing.
Sources close to Bannon first said the chief strategist did not know he was being interviewed when he spoke over the phone with Robert Kuttner, the co-editor of The American Prospect. But the same sources now say the chief strategist granted the interview as part of a ploy to distract from the criticism President Donald Trump has been facing over his response to the violence in Charlottesville sparked by a white supremacist rally.
“Bannon knew full well this would distract from criticism,” a source familiar with Bannon’s thinking said.
A second source familiar with Bannon’s thinking said the chief strategist was trying “to divert attention from Charlottesville criticism” by offering the controversial comments to the American Prospect reporter, knowing the comments would grip headlines.
Bannon has declined to comment and did not respond to CNN’s inquiry asking about the conflicting accounts.
Bannon’s remarks may have served to momentarily divert attention from the President’s controversial response to the violence in Charlottesville, but his comments also offered damaging insight into the divisions inside the Trump administration and showed the chief strategist undercutting the President on the most significant national security issue facing the administration.
While Trump promised to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea should the rogue regime continue to threaten or attempt to strike the US or its allies, Bannon dismissed North Korea as a “sideshow” to the larger economic conflicts between the US and China and argued there is “no military solution” to the crisis.
The remarkable comments were reminiscent of what got Bannon into hot water earlier this year, when a narrative began to set in that he was effectively running the White House.
Bannon also offered unprompted criticism of fellow advisers to the president, including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, whom Bannon placed among those he is fighting “every day” to push a harder line on international trade issues.
Those comments in particular could land Bannon in trouble with the President and his recently-installed chief of staff John Kelly, who just two weeks earlier ousted White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci after he badmouthed colleagues in vulgar terms to The New Yorker.
Scaramucci later said he did not believe his conversation with The New Yorker reporter had been on the record, and later conceded he made a mistake.
Robert Kuttner, the Prospect editor who interviewed Bannon on Tuesday, wrote in his article that “the question of whether the phone call was on or off the record never came up.”
“This is also puzzling, since Steve Bannon is not exactly Bambi when it comes to dealing with the press. He’s probably the most media-savvy person in America,” Kuttner wrote.
Bannon, the former Breitbart chief, is known for being particular media savvy and — like other experienced Washington hands — knows that all conversations with reporters are on the record unless an agreement is reached beforehand.