President Donald Trump took to Twitter Monday morning to insist he calls the shots in the White House and slam The New York Times' reporting. He wasn’t directly responding to anything, but the tweets came after a weekend report in the Times that Trump was angry he wasn’t fully briefed on an order elevating chief strategist Steve Bannon to the National Security Council.
This unusual move led to speculation about Bannon’s role in the administration and whether he has unchecked influence on the president — influence that even the president may not understand — and The Times reported that Trump’s chief of staff was taking steps to rein it in.
Also this weekend, "Saturday Night Live" mocked the president as an intellectual lightweight doing the bidding of Bannon, who was portrayed as the Grim Reaper.
Many saw Bannon's fingerprints in the nativist policies implemented or floated by the Trump administration in its first two weeks, including the temporary ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries that's sparked nationwide protests. And the president's decision to give Bannon a permanent seat on the National Security Council (NSC) prompted a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to write an op-ed in the Times Monday condemning the decision, saying Bannon's "attendance threatens to politicize national security decision making."
Trump tweeted early Monday that he runs the show: "I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it."
Trump also denounced the Times, tweeting that it wrote "total fiction" and was "making up stories and sources" about his administration. (He has made similar accusations before, but never sued the Times.) NBC News has not verified the Times report, based on dozens of anonymous sources; in it, Bannon said "We didn’t come here to do small things."
So who is this divisive figure? Here’s what you need to know about Stephen K. Bannon:
Who is Stephen Bannon?
Long before he took a role advising Trump, the Virginia native was an investment banker for Goldman Sachs. In 1990, he started his own investment banking company, Bannon & Co., which financed stakes in media and entertainment, including the hit sitcom "Seinfeld." He is listed with 18 film production credits on IMDB.
All the while, Bannon vocalized right-wing ideologies. In a 2007 outline of one of his films, he expressed that the press, various branches of government and the ACLU were "enablers" of an Islamic State in America, per the Washington Post. Bannon co-founded Breitbart News, an extremely conservative political website that has published highly controversial material. He has called the site "the platform for the alt-right," an extreme branch of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism. He stepped aside to work for the Trump campaign.
What is his role as chief strategist?
In August, Trump tapped Bannon to be the CEO of his presidential campaign, which he and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, helped steer to a comeback victory. Trump appointed Bannon as chief strategist days after the election.
The chief strategist sets political goals for the administration and helps to brand what it does, but the role has varied from president to president. Valerie Jarrett held the role under Barack Obama and Karl Rove was chief strategist for George W. Bush. It's not an administrative role, like chief of staff, though the chief strategist gets security clearance for everything the president does.
Bannon reportedly co-wrote the inaugural address with senior advisor Stephen Miller, which spoke of ongoing "American carnage" that Trump's administration will rectify.
What is his new role on the NSC?
On Jan. 28, Trump signed an executive order putting Bannon on the National Security Council and adding him to its "principals committee" at the expense of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his top military and intelligence advisers. His status in that committee is equal to the secretaries of state and defense.
The 70-year-old council’s purpose is to discuss and plan national security matters. It has traditionally been non-partisan.
The Times reported that Trump ordered Bannon's addition to the council without full knowledge of what it entailed.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the move and pointed to Bannon's military service. He told ABC News, "He is a former naval officer. He's got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now."
Why is he a source of controversy?
Bannon is reviled by many on the left for his role in developing Breitbart, which remains associated with white nationalist ideas, including what's become known as the "alt-right." Critics call Breitbart racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic.
Breitbart's Senior Editor-at-Large, Joel Pollak told NPR the website is not any of the things it's been criticized for. "Breitbart News is a conservative website. And we are not racist, we're not anti-Semitic, we're not anti-gay, we're not anti-woman," he said.
Bannon has denied that he is a white nationalist, calling himself an "economic nationalist" with visions of building an "entirely new political movement."
"Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power," Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter after being tapped as chief strategist.
What makes him different from other political strategists
Bannon represents one of the platforms that Trump ran his campaign on: Being a political outsider. While many chief strategists have a past rooted in political involvement, Bannon doesn't. And unlike past chief strategists, such as Rove, he spent a short time working for the Trump campaign before being appointed to an administration position, as the Wall Street Journal reported. In the past, chief strategists have spent years working with candidates or their parties.
He was also a quiet figure in the campaign--which isn't typical for most political strategists, who usually work to gather support for candidates. But depsite not being out front doing the talking, Bannon is said to have been one of the driving forces behind Trump's busy first week in office.
What was the reaction to Bannon's NSC move?
Bannon's position on the NSC has drawn sharp criticism from many, including past members of the committee and politicians. John McCain called the move a "radical departure" from past councils.
Michael G. Mullen, who served on the principals committee of which Bannon is now part of, under George W. Bush, penned an editorial in the New York Times criticizing Trump's decision.
Mullen wrote that having Banon as a voting member of the principals committee "results in a blurring of presidential responsibilities — Republican Party leader and commander in chief — that is unhealthy for the republic." He also argues for putting the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national intelligence director back into a permanent position on the council.
Bannon's position in the council shows a new, growing influence of a political strategist at the intersection of politics and security, the Associated Press reported. The council is meant to be bipartisan, as Mullen pointed out in his editorial.
Former president George W. Bush barred chief strategist Karl Rove from the NSC because he did not want foreign policy decisions to be dictated by politics. The NSC’s decisions, he said at a conference in September, "involve life and death for people in uniform."
In a letter to Trump, House Democrats urged him to remove Bannon from the council, writing that the move is "completely dangerous and morally reprehensible."