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Bannon backtracks as White House presses counterattack

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon speaks during a rally for U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Fairhope Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The Globe and Mail

The White House is mounting an all-out defence of President Donald Trump against growing questions in the media about his mental and temperamental fitness for office.

A coterie of White House officials took to the air on Sunday to eviscerate both the author of a controversial book that painted the President as an erratic decision-maker running a shambolic government, and Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump's former chief strategist and one of the book's main sources.

The counterattack drew a wide-ranging apology from Mr. Bannon, who reaffirmed his loyalty to Mr. Trump and took back his blistering criticisms of the President's son, Donald Trump Jr., for meeting with a Kremlin intermediary during the election campaign.

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Related: Trump fired Flynn after insisting he attend Trudeau meeting, new book says

Read more: Fire and Fury: Seven revelations from the behind-the-scenes Trump book

Opinion: Trump slams Bannon – and Canada should cheer

But Michael Wolff, whose book Fire and Fury touched off the drama, doubled down: In a television appearance, he declared it was time for the White House to consider stripping Mr. Trump of power and suggested administration officials have already been discussing such a move. The controversy threatens to distract from the Republicans' hefty legislative agenda – which includes an attempt to fund Mr. Trump's proposed wall along the Mexican border – and casts a shadow over the party as it gears up for congressional elections later this year. But it has also given the GOP establishment something of a boost by marginalizing Mr. Bannon, who was co-ordinating attempts to unseat mainline Republican legislators in favour of more populist incumbents.

Whether there will be any long-term effect, however, remains an open question. Mr. Trump has faced almost non-stop conflagrations, usually of his own making, since launching his presidential campaign 2 1/2 years ago, and previous revelations about his temperament have done little to blunt his success.

Fire and Fury, released on Friday, asserts that Mr. Trump "didn't process information in any conventional sense" or read his briefing notes, and that some in his circle believe he is "no more than semi-literate." In conversations, Mr. Wolff writes, Mr. Trump repeats anecdotes ad nauseam and does not appear to understand what he is told.

Such details turned the spotlight onto a months-long debate over the President's fitness – one that has become potentially deadly with his penchant for baiting nuclear-armed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un on Twitter. Cable-news shows discussed the matter at length in recent days. It was even raised at a White House press briefing.

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The President hit back on Twitter on Saturday, declaring himself "a very stable genius" and "like, really smart." He labelled Mr. Wolff "a total loser who made up stories" and claimed "Sloppy Steve" Bannon cried when Mr. Trump fired him last summer.

On NBC on Sunday, Mr. Wolff floated invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows the vice-president and a majority of cabinet to declare a president unable to govern and transfer his powers to the vice-president. He said some administration officials have been discussing this possibility: "Twenty-fifth Amendment is a concept that is alive every day in the White House."

On CNN, Mr. Trump's policy chief, Stephen Miller, insisted the President is a "genius," derided Mr. Wolff as "a garbage author" and dismissed the contributions of Mr. Bannon to the White House as "greatly exaggerated."

The exchange grew testy as interviewer Jake Tapper accused Mr. Miller of ducking his questions. When Mr. Tapper said he was "trying to get to the issue of the President's fitness," Mr. Miller replied: "Well, I'm getting to the issue of your fitness." Mr. Tapper cut the interview short. On Fox News, meanwhile, CIA director Mike Pompeo said Mr. Wolff's contention that Mr. Trump does not understand his briefings is "just absurd." And Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told ABC that Mr. Trump's Twitter threats to Pyongyang were necessary to deter the rogue regime.

Jennifer Lawless, professor of government at American University in Washington, said the problem for Mr. Trump is less the picture Fire and Fury paints of him than that he seemed unable to control his reaction. The controversy has eclipsed the Republicans' victory lap from passing a signature tax-cut plan and put GOP candidates in an awkward position as they navigate how close they can be to the President before the midterms.

"The book has the potential to be damaging … because this is not how a head of state reacts," Prof. Lawless said. "This should have been an excellent week for the White House. It's been a disaster."

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Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist, said GOP members of Congress have long privately raised concerns about Mr. Trump's fitness for office while cheering him on in public. In that context, it seems unlikely they will turn on him now.

"These guys have gone all-in on the bet. … They've decided that the risk of Donald Trump blowing up the entire Republican Party is worth getting the tax-cut bill," he said in an interview. "They've decided that the risk of starting a nuclear war – I wish I was saying that more facetiously – is worth getting tax cuts."

The President's remarkable ability to get his party in line was demonstrated acutely by Mr. Bannon. The former chief strategist was quoted in Fire and Fury describing as "treasonous" Mr. Trump Jr.'s decision to meet at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have Kremlin-supplied dirt on Hillary Clinton. Even as Mr. Miller was skewering him on CNN on Sunday, Mr. Bannon issued a statement taking it back and professing his undying loyalty.

"Donald Trump, Jr. is both a patriot and a good man. He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around," Mr. Bannon said. "My support is also unwavering for the President and his agenda.

Trump hits back at questions of mental fitness (Reuters)
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