Breitbart Owners Debate Ousting Bannon Amid Trump Feud
President Donald Trump’s growing feud with Steve Bannon is threatening the former White House strategist’s leadership of the conservative Breitbart News website and upending Mr. Bannon’s plans to wage “war” on party incumbents he deemed insufficiently loyal to the White House agenda.
Mr. Bannon’s longtime benefactors, billionaires Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, are actively distancing from him even before the expected release this week of a book that has roiled Messrs. Trump and Bannon’s relationship, according to two people close to the Mercers.
The Mercer Family recently dumped the leaker known as Sloppy Steve Bannon. Smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2018
They and other Breitbart News Network LLC board members on Thursday were debating whether to oust Mr. Bannon as chairman, with many supportive of the move, according to a person familiar with the exchanges. Among the considerations are Breitbart’s contractual relationships with other entities, including Sirius XM radio, that involve Mr. Bannon.
Staffers at Breitbart, which Mr. Bannon has called his “killing machine,” described a “chaotic” day at the company, with writers—many personally recruited by Mr. Bannon—wondering whether he would last the day.
Mr. Trump said Mr. Bannon has “lost his mind” and that he has “nothing to do with me or my presidency,” a response to Mr. Bannon’s numerous incendiary comments—including insults about the president’s family—in Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” about the first year of the Trump administration.
Asked Thursday whether Breitbart should oust Mr. Bannon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “I certainly think that it’s something they should look at and consider.”
Mr. Bannon and his representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment. On two recent radio shows, Mr. Bannon expressed support for Mr. Trump. He said Thursday morning, “nothing will ever come between us and President Trump and his agenda.”
On Thursday, Mr. Trump acknowledged Mr. Bannon’s more complimentary tone. “He called me a great man last night, so he obviously changed his tune pretty quick,” Mr. Trump said.
The quarrel between the onetime political partners also is raising doubts about whether Mr. Bannon will have a financial benefactor for his run at establishment Republicans, a project that he has said is ultimately aimed at toppling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.)
After leaving the White House in August, Mr. Bannon returned to the helm of Breitbart News and toured the world speaking to groups about populism. He also formed a nonprofit group to raise money for use in political races and policy fights and had been set to launch the project in the coming weeks.
The group, called Citizens of the American Republic, was registered in Virginia on Nov. 21, but beyond testing out a website since taken down, Mr. Bannon appears to have done little with the group.
Ed Rollins, a strategist for Great America PAC, a pro-Trump super PAC, said the Trump-Bannon feud will marginalize Mr. Bannon. His own group, he said, is unlikely to continue its plans to work with him on campaigns.
“Bannon could have been a force and very helpful on campaigns,” Mr. Rollins said. “Money people are only going to go with people they think are tied to Trump, and he’s lost that.”
Mr. Bannon’s move into political strategy hit an early roadblock when he backed Roy Moore in the race for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Tensions between Mr. Bannon and the Mercers—who have backed numerous Bannon ventures—have been simmering for months. Mr. Mercer resigned in November as chief executive of his hedge fund and sold his stake in Breitbart to Rebekah Mercer. In his resignation letter, he wrote that his views didn’t always “align” with Mr. Bannon’s but that he had “great respect” for him.
After reading about Mr. Bannon’s extensive quotes in Mr. Wolff’s book, the Mercers were “shocked and horrified,” according to one person familiar with their views.
Ms. Mercer phoned the White House on Thursday to reaffirm the Mercers’ support for the president, said a White House official. Later in the day, she released a rare public statement rebuking Mr. Bannon.
“I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” she said in the statement. “My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements.”
Doug Deason, a Texas-based GOP donor who has said he admires Mr. Bannon as a “brilliant guy” who played a critical role in getting Mr. Trump elected, said the former chief strategist’s ego has gotten the better of him. He said that would likely doom him with donors.
“He doesn’t have any credibility out there with anyone in the big donor class,” Mr. Deason said. “If you support the president, you can’t support Steve Bannon. Anyone who was even considering giving him money—I can’t imagine they would do that now.”
Indeed, Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor and chief executive of a Colorado-based drilling services company, said he is rethinking plans to back Mr. Bannon’s political projects.
“If he’s not President Trump’s wingman on the outside, I really don’t know what Steve Bannon’s constituency is,” Mr. Eberhart said.
Candidates who very recently touted Mr. Bannon’s support have begun distancing themselves, including Arizona Republican Senate candidate Kelli Ward, who appeared with Mr. Bannon at a campaign rally in October.
“Steve Bannon is only one of the many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received,” said Ward spokesman Zachery Henry, who declined to comment on whether she would welcome another campaign visit by Mr. Bannon.
Bannon-backed candidates are being pushed by their opponents to disavow him.
Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is running for the Senate GOP nomination in West Virginia, called on his rival Attorney General Pat Morrisey to “immediately disavow Bannon’s support.”
Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik put out a statement emphasizing the candidate’s support for the president over his alliance with Mr. Bannon, saying he “does not support these attacks on President Trump and his family.”
However, some GOP challengers were wary of openly repudiating Mr. Bannon. Danny Tarkanian, who is running against one of the GOP’s most vulnerable senators, Dean Heller of Nevada, said he still welcomed Mr. Bannon’s support while casting himself as a Trump loyalist.
“If Mr. Bannon chooses to support me in our effort to repeal and replace Dean Heller with someone who will truly have the President’s back, I welcome his support,” Mr. Tarkanian said.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) said the falling out with Mr. Bannon would be good for the party’s chances in 2018.
“Mr. Bannon was out recruiting candidates who were un-electable in the general election,” Mr. Cornyn told reporters Thursday. “We can get back to work nominating good electable candidates.”
The Trump-Bannon feud has one person claiming victory: Mr. McConnell. Shortly after Mr. Trump’s Wednesday statement denouncing Mr. Bannon, Mr. McConnell’s campaign team tweeted an image of the Senate majority leader, sitting behind a desk, grinning broadly.