BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — People close to Steve Bannon tell NBC News he feels on safe ground amid White House infighting stemming from President Donald Trump’s divisive response to the violence in Charlottesville.
Bannon, who has rarely given on-the-record interviews since assuming his position as Trump’s chief White House strategist, reached out to speak with three news outlets in the past 48 hours, using those conversations to criticize colleagues, threaten to fire others and appearing to relish the ongoing national racial tensions.
His comments signal that Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, is digging in for the long haul amid the turmoil and turnover that has roiled Trump’s cohort of top advisers in recent weeks.
He also suggested infighting among Trump’s closest advisers remained rampant.
“We’re still fighting. There’s Treasury and Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying,” he said, name-dropping Trump’s National Economic Council director.
Bannon, who as Trump’s campaign chief who was widely credited with helping Trump cultivate support among the alt-right, also called that wing of the party “losers,” “a fringe element,” and a “collection of clowns.”
“I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more,” he said, just days after Trump said “two sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville.
Bannon, however, added that forcing Democrats to talk about race would ultimately benefit Trump’s White House.
“If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats,” he said.
A White House official confirmed the accuracy of the quotes by Bannon in the "American Prospect" article but said Bannon intended to have a conversation about the writer's article on North Korea, rather than a full interview.
In an interview with The New York Times, published Wednesday, Bannon said that “the race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,” referring to the debates raging nationwide over Confederate monuments.
“Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” he said.
He also told the Daily Mail, in an article Thursday morning, that his earlier comments were designed to distract from Trump’s own controversial comments about Charlottesville, explaining to the Daily Mail's website that his initial interview “drew fire away from POTUS,” and “changed the [media] narrative.”
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Bannon's original comments, however, clearly ruffled feathers at the State Department.
Following Bannon’s attack on one of Rex Tillerson’s most trusted career State Department employees, the secretary of state pointedly walked over to publicly shake Thornton's hand before sitting down to meet with Japanese officials on Thursday.
“The Secretary asked Susan Thornton to lead in a very important role and he continues to rely on her to lead the State Department’s diplomacy in Asia," a State Department official said. “We refer you to the White House for any additional questions.”
Though he has survived a number of these episodes in the past, Bannon’s status within the White House has remained unclear in recent weeks.
Following the abrupt departures in July of Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus and Anthony Scaramucci, sources inside and outside the White House indicated Bannon's future seemed tenuous.
After Trump’s explosive response this week to the violence in Charlottesville, multiple members of his Manufacturing Council quit, too, before the president disbanded it as well as another key economic council.
At a Tuesday press conference where he doubled down on his Charlottesville remarks, Trump offered ambiguous words about Bannon when asked about his adviser’s future in the West Wing.
“We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon,” he said.
It sounded ominous — but Bannon appeared unconcerned.
Two sources close to him told NBC News this week he seemed confident he’ll survive this latest round of bruising headlines questioning his political future with the president.
By July, several White House advisers had told Politico that Bannon, once the chief architect of Trump’s campaign and agenda, had put himself in a “self-imposed exile” to enhance his prospects for West Wing longevity.
Trump for his part, had made his displeasure with Bannon known in April, hitting back at his strategist in a pair of interviews.