President Trump Made Nice to Steve Bannon to Keep His Base Happy

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Steve Bannon was a top campaign and White House adviser to Donald Trump until a few months ago. Reuters

President Donald Trump threaded a needle in the Rose Garden on Monday. There he was, standing next to his necessary ally and sometimes rival, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and being asked about his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who has become something of a hero to the GOP's growing nationalist base. Trump had to be nice to Bannon, if he wanted to protect his base, and to McConnell, who is essential to passing his agenda through Congress.

If there was any love lost between Trump and his former chief strategist, it wasn't apparent on Monday, even though the two were on opposite sides of a recent U.S. Senate race. The president declared that "Steve Bannon is a friend of mine" even as he stood next to McConnell, the man that Bannon has vowed to oust and has chided as a "globalist."

"Well, I have a very good relationship with Steve Bannon. I like Steve," Trump said during the unscheduled press conference. "Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing."

Bannon, who left the White House to once again become the head of Breitbart News, is vowing to back GOP primary challengers to Senate Republicans who he believes are opposing Trump. In Alabama's special election, Bannon backed Roy Moore over the incumbent, Senator Luther Strange, who had the support of both McConnell and the president. This weekend, Bannon declared a "season of war" on the GOP establishment.

Trump, meanwhile, did his best to soothe the fissures in the GOP, insisting the Republican Party is unified.

"Maybe with the exception of a few, I have a fantastic relationship with the people in the Senate and Congress," Trump said, although he's hurled insults via Twitter and in speeches against, most recently, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, and has chided Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona. He said he'd try to get Bannon to cut back the number of incumbents he opposed: "Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm gonna see if we talk him outta that, 'cause frankly, they're great people."

He added: "I'm friends with most of them. I like and respect most of them, and I think they like and respect me. The Republican Party is very, very unified."

Trump made somewhat more favorable remarks about Bannon during a Cabinet meeting before his Rose Garden press conference, saying that he sympathizes with the Breitbart News head's attacks on Senate Republicans.

"There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves," Trump said at the meeting. "So I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels."

For his part, McConnell was less charitable to Bannon, noting that many of the Bannon-style conservative challengers to GOP incumbents in 2010 and 2012 went on to lose—most notably Todd Akin of Missouri and Sharon Angle of Nevada.

"Our operating approach will be to support our incumbents, and in open seats, help nominate people who can actually win in November," McConnell said. "That's my approach, and that's how you keep a governing majority."