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What Trump's Increasing Isolation Could Mean For His Presidency

President Trump speaks on the phone in January with Russian President Vladimir Putin, joined by top White House figures Reince Priebus (from left), Vice President Pence, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and Michael Flynn. Only Pence remains.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
President Trump speaks on the phone in January with Russian President Vladimir Putin, joined by top White House figures Reince Priebus (from left), Vice President Pence, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and Michael Flynn. Only Pence remains.

There is a telling photo that has gotten some attention in social media after Steve Bannon's exit as President Trump's chief strategist. (You can see it above.)

It shows President Trump behind the desk in the Oval Office, surrounded by his top advisers: Seated are Vice President Pence and national security adviser Mike Flynn; standing, from left to right, are chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and press secretary Sean Spicer.

That was Jan. 28, eight days after Trump was inaugurated.

Today, only Pence remains.

(NBC Nightly News modified the photo in a graphic that makes everyone disappear except Pence and the president.)

There were countless stories about the infighting between the Bannon and Priebus wings of the White House staff. The duo tried to quash the drama with a joint appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, where they looked more like the Blues Brothers than Cain and Abel.

"We share an office suite together," Priebus said glowingly of his colleague at CPAC. "We're basically together from 6:30 in the morning until about 11 o'clock at night."

Bannon picked right up: "I have a little thing called The War Room. He has a fireplace with, you know, nice sofas."

Now, neither has any place in the White House.

It's all a reminder, as this reporter has written before, that for the many stories of palace intrigue in this White House, Trump is Trump. He makes the final call. No one is pulling his strings. And he wants everyone to know that.

In February, Bannon was on the cover of Time as "The Great Manipulator." By April, Trump was signaling he could be out.

"I like Steve, but you have to remember, he was not involved in my campaign until very late," Trump said.

When a book came out about Bannon's influence in the campaign, Trump tweeted sarcastically that he loved reading about all the "geniuses" who helped get him elected. "Problem is, most don't exist," he said.

There has been a pattern — that if anyone gets too much attention for being influential, they become a target. Remember when U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was getting lots of positive attention for how she spoke out on Syria?

"Does everybody like Nikki, because if you don't — ," Trump said. "Otherwise she can easily be replaced, right?"

And there was Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, whostood awkwardly behind the president when he spoke at the Boy Scouts Jamboree last month, when Trump said: "By the way, are you going to get the votes? He better get them. He better get them. Oh, he better. Otherwise I'll say, 'Tom, you're fired.' I'll get somebody."

(Nevermind that Price had relatively little influence in getting those votes.)

Two days later, the health care bill failed. Price is still on the job, but in an effort to separate himself from Congress and hold onto his base, Trump began to lash out at congressional Republicans, especially Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

Translation: Trump is all about Trump.

The ousters at the White House, taken together, amount to a Trump purge. It's the president asserting himself and saying no one is above No. 1.

But will that make him even more isolated?

Republican elected officials have broken with him post-Charlottesville, from Bob Corker in Tennessee questioning his "stability" and "competence" to South Carolina's Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, saying the president's "moral authority is compromised."

Imagine if in his first seven months, Barack Obama had accused Harry Reid of not living up to his promises and fired David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs from his White House, and Democratic leaders questioned his "stability," "competence" and "moral authority."

When a president has his back against the wall, his loyal White House team is often what he has left. In most presidents' cases, those aides are also key campaign aides. Ousting them could have real consequences for a president's re-election, too.

But Trump is betting that his brand is above any aides and more durable than his fellow Republicans. As Wisconsin voter Katie Matson told NPR this week, "There's been a lot of things that he's done and said since he's been in office that I don't agree and that, you know, a person thinks twice about. And then I think we have to remember he is not a politician. But we knew that going into this."

So his supporters might be forgiving even now, but Priebus was able to supplement his campaign with staffing in key states and holding the establishment together, and Bannon had major influence with that conservative base.

Re-election is still 39 months away. Until then, aides in the White House can have significant influence in how to shape White House policy and messaging. It's hard to see how getting rid of all of them will make things easier for Trump.

The ouster could mean less chaos in the White House, but more outside. Shortly after Bannon's ouster, there were signs Trump could not only be fighting the mainstream media, what he sees as the "fake news," but also the Breitbarts of the world. Bannon was in charge of the conservative news outlet there before joining the Trump campaign.

After news of Bannon's exit, Breitbart editor Joel Pollak tweeted simply, #WAR. And a headline on Breitbart's site was: "WITH STEVE BANNON GONE, DONALD TRUMP RISKS BECOMING ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER 2.0."

Hours later, another Breitbart headline read: "'Populist Hero' Stephen K. Bannon Returns Home to Breitbart."

For his part, Bannon said Friday evening that he's going to "war for Trump."

"If there's any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I'm leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America," Bannon told Bloomberg's Joshua Green.

He painted his exit in stark terms in an interview with the conservative outlet The Weekly Standard: "The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over. We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It'll be something else. And there'll be all kinds of fights, and there'll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over."

However Bannon decides to fight, what is clear is he is not going quietly.

What is left in the White House is Trump's family, "globalists," like former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn and the generals, including chief of staff John Kelly, who has orchestrated much of the shake-up. The latter two are arguably part of "the swamp" his base so detests.

But that is not to say any of them will become ascendant for an extended period. Kelly has already been on the cover of Time, hailed as "Trump's Last Best Hope." What happens if the magazine credits him for righting the ship, or the narrative becomes that the Pentagon is dictating policy?

The narrative that really seems to irk Trump is one of the "adults" leading him around like he is a "child."

A president needs a staff of professionals to help shape messaging, so he can lead on policy and running the government. But what if the president winds up not being the traditional driver of policy? What if his influence winds up being limited to Twitter? That wasn't enough to sell health care, something Republicans had run on for years and years.

What if government runs itself? It's possible. Republicans in Congress could go about their usual policy agenda, and Trump is reduced to a pen. (Of course, he still could assert himself on the world stage, and that's the role with the biggest consequences.)

But does anyone really think Trump is willing to shrink away and allow that to happen?

Anything's possible. Nothing is normal. So don't be surprised if in another seven months, the country is looking at a completely new White House again — though Trump is running out of people who will take jobs in his administration.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 21, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Breitbart editor Joel Pollak's last name as Pollack.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.