Bloomberg View columnist Michael Lewis documents former White House Chief Strategist and former Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon’s live reaction to President Trump’s State of the Union address — particularly an offer of a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants.
Words are now coming out of Trump’s mouth but Bannon seems to be only half listening. He’s got a pair of phones out and is scrolling through the speech, the text of which someone has just sent him. As he reads his face flushes. “They have path to citizenship in here,” he says, matter-of- factly. “It’s terrible. It’s a betrayal.”
He leaves the room for several minutes, perhaps to compose himself. When he returns he takes real notice of the remarkable scene that is unfolding. At even the most anodyne applause lines the Democrats remain seated. Bannon seems to view the Democrats less as the opposition party than figures of fun. “The Democrats don’t matter,” he had said to me over our lunch. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” But he stares at the seated Democrats with genuine wonder. “Look at this,” he says. “Even Reagan — I’ve never seen a State of the Union like this.”
“Tell me when you think Trump really cares about what he is saying,” I say.
Bannon laughs, but not a happy laugh. “I will.”
When Trump points to yet another of his props in the balcony, Bannon drifts out to get a Diet Coke. “Any time there’s one of these ‘stories’ I can take a break,” he says, over his shoulder. Clearly he’s preoccupied by Trump’s upcoming offer to the Dreamer kids. When Trump finally utters those words, Bannon cannot fathom them. “It’s unbelievable,” he says. “Terrible, terrible.” He watches the muted reaction inside the Capitol. The Democrats just sit there, glaring at Trump. But the Republicans sit there too. There’s no deal to be had. Trump just blew up his base for nothing.
“Who talked him into it?” I ask.
“I’ll let you guess,” he says. He says something else a moment later, but his publicist shouts, “That’s off the record!”
The night’s not all bad, from Bannon’s point of view. The moment he seems to most enjoy is a line Trump delivers, after he’s told the story of a 12-year-old boy who tended the graves of fallen troops. The boy, Trump says, “reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
“Boom!” Bannon explodes, and pumps his fist. When Trump shortly follows this with a plug for “beautiful, clean coal” (ad-libbing, with typical weirdness, the “beautiful”), Bannon says “I love it,” and starts to laugh. “He’s trolling! He’s trolling from the podium.” By now Trump is simply ignoring the side of the room on which the Democrats sit in silence and delivering the speech only to the Republicans.
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