President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called white nationalists and “alt-right” groups “losers” in a phone call with the editor of a progressive magazine.
In an interview with The American Prospect, published late Wednesday, Bannon also detailed how he’s working to influence change in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s State Department, as well as U.S. policy on China. His comments emerged alongside another report that says Trump is afraid of firing him.
“These guys are a collection of clowns,” Bannon said of hard-right groups that marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which left dozens injured and a 32-year-old woman who was protesting the march dead.
“Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it—you know, help crush it more,” Bannon said. His comments are at odds with his role leading Breitbart, a hard-right online news outlet, which he called “the platform for the alt-right” during the 2016 campaign.
In a press conference at Manhattan’s Trump Tower Tuesday, the president defended the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white supremacists, white nationalists, conspiracy theorists and populists, which has become increasingly visible since his election victory.
But the president also said “we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon” when asked about the White House aide’s status within the administration following bipartisan calls for him to be fired for his past support for the alt-right.
“The president obviously is very nervous and afraid of firing him,” a source close to the White House told Reuters Wednesday. The source said the concern is that Bannon could turn into a harsh critic of the administration if he’s forced out.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has recently blamed Bannon for a sustained campaign of stories on Breitbart attacking his character after he worked to fire Bannon’s allies on the National Security Council.
In the interview, Bannon also contradicted Trump’s threats of military action against North Korea over its continuing intercontinental ballistic missile tests and development of nuclear weapons.
“There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats]. Forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no military solution here. They got us.”
In the interview, Bannon had his sights set on a larger issue. “We’re at economic war with China,” he said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re in an economic war and they’re crushing us.”
Bannon said that to him “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
He said he plans to challenge China and its trade imbalance by lodging complaints against its steel and aluminum export practices and use the 1974 Trade Act to block China’s practice of extracting technology from American companies.
These strategies, he said, are riling his opponents in the State, Defense and Treasury departments and the National Economic Council. But he has plans to marginalize Trump administration members.
“I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton [acting head of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau] out at State,” Bannon said.
His comment about Thornton shows Bannon believes he has strong influence over Tillerson, who has tried to make Thornton permanent in the role but has been blocked by the White House.
“They’re wetting themselves,” Bannon said of his government rivals and opponents on tougher trade policies against China. “The president’s default position is to do it, but the apparatus is going crazy.”