RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon left the White House this past summer, Bannon critics wondered if he would do more harm outside the tent, so to speak. His quotes in a new book suggest that might be true. Bannon is heavily quoted in journalist Michael Wolff's new book "Fire And Fury." In it, he calls a meeting that happened at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, quote, "treasonous," and he lashes out at the president's son Donald Trump Jr. The quotes made President Trump upset, to say the least. Here's how his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, characterized his response.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think furious, disgusted would probably certainly fit.
MARTIN: The president's lawyer is even threatening legal action against Steve Bannon, who led Trump's campaign then served as chief strategist in the White House. We are joined now by Scott Detrow, congressional reporter and the host of NPR's Politics Podcast. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: All right, so I want to get to these quotes, but first, just tell us more about this book and in particular how Michael Wolff got this access - the access he would've needed to write this thing.
DETROW: Yeah. He is saying that he did more than 200 interviews for this, and the way that this is being described is that he was at the White House so much last year, he was basically camping out in Steve Bannon's office and other places, as opposed to coming in for specific interviews. There's a lot of eye-popping quotes from Trump advisers in the excerpts we've seen, not just from Steve Bannon.
A lot of this is being denied by the White House and some of the people quoted, but some of the main allegations that are getting attention are things that have been coming up a lot in a lot of different reports - the idea that Trump just doesn't seem to be engaged on policy, that many of his aides and cabinet members have insulted his intelligence and that he seems to spend a good chunk of his day, according to this book and other reports, seething and watching cable news.
MARTIN: So let's get into exactly what Bannon said because this illustrates what is becoming a deeper rift between these former allies. What exactly is - has stoked the ire of the president so much?
DETROW: What seemed to really set this off were quotes that first appeared in The Guardian, going back to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting set up of a premise of Russian intermediaries having damaging information about Hillary Clinton. This is the meeting that Donald Trump Jr. famously emailed about saying, if it's what you say it is, I love it. So Bannon is quoted calling the meeting, quote, "treasonous and unpatriotic." And he goes on to predict that investigators looking into this will, quote, "crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV" - other quotes as well. But going directly after President Trump's family and into a territory that President Trump is so sensitive about - the Russia investigation - seems to have triggered this, this bombastic response from the White House.
MARTIN: And we heard how Sarah Huckabee Sanders characterized the president's response. But then the White House actually took an extraordinary step and issued a statement from the president on this.
DETROW: Yes. And even with the statements we've been accustomed to reading on Twitter and elsewhere, this was remarkable. It discredits Steve Bannon. It says he's always overstated his importance. This was issued from the president himself. The line that really stood out was, when he was fired, he not only lost his job; he lost his mind. In addition to that, Trump's personal lawyers have sent a cease-and-desist letter. They're threatening a lawsuit, but we should point out, throughout his career, President Trump has consistently threatened lawsuits and not actually filed those lawsuits.
MARTIN: Right. It is amazing though that the - why wouldn't he have just tweeted that? It sounds like a tweet, but they wanted to make extra sure that everyone knew this was an official statement.
DETROW: This seems to have been a long-brewing statement from President Trump. You know, he and Bannon have a complicated relationship. And Trump's claim that Bannon has long exaggerated his role is something many people have long said about Bannon, but it's clear that the articles about Steve Bannon's prominence, that he was a top adviser, an architect of the campaign, had often bothered Trump.
When Trump's spoken publicly about Bannon before, he said, you know, Steve Bannon's a friend, he's an adviser, but he came on late in the campaign, and, you know, I'm the one who was responsible for this. But this idea that Bannon is totally out of the loop on the presidency - we should say that he was a close adviser and that at the beginning of the administration, President Trump basically appointed him as almost a co-chief of staff with Reince Priebus. That was an unprecedented move.
MARTIN: Which he did on purpose to kind of create this competition to see who would rise and who would fall.
DETROW: Right, right.
MARTIN: So is any of this going to affect the 2018 midterms?
DETROW: I think one...
MARTIN: I feel like everything does in some way.
DETROW: Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, was very happy about this development, so much so that his campaign account actually tweeted out a smiling GIF of this. McConnell had been concerned that Bannon was taking on Republican incumbents and threatening Republicans' Senate majority. The Alabama race where Bannon played a big role and resulted in a Democratic win was exhibit one. So Mitch McConnell's probably pretty happy. Bannon is out of the loop with President Trump. So is Paul Ryan. So are many other establishment Republicans.
MARTIN: NPR's congressional reporter Scott Detrow. Thanks, Scott.
DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.