With President Trump cheering from the sidelines, the White House on Sunday pressed its defense of the president’s fitness to govern, as fired former aide Stephen K. Bannon reversed course and apologized for his role in a new book’s explosive portrait of Trump.
The president’s critics, meanwhile, said Trump’s stream of taunts and insults in response to the book — “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” released last week — served only to underscore the author’s unsettling portrayal of Trump’s year-old presidency, depicting a leader whose own aides consider him childish, ignorant and dangerously erratic.
The most vehement defense of Trump on Sunday came from senior advisor Stephen Miller, a onetime Bannon acolyte who distanced himself from his former mentor. In a combative appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Miller called the book “grotesque” and writer Michael Wolff “the garbage author of a garbage book.”
In his CNN appearance, Miller called Bannon, who was one of Wolff’s principal sources, “angry and vindictive.” The author quoted Bannon as using the label “treasonous” for a Trump Tower meeting last year with Kremlin-linked figures, in which Donald Trump Jr. took part.
The book quoted Bannon as predicting that the younger Trump would “crack…like an egg” in the face of the Russia investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
On Sunday, however, Bannon — who has faced withering attacks from the president since the book’s contents were first aired — sought to mend fences, praising Trump’s elder son as “both a patriot and a good man.”
“He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around,” Bannon said in a statement first reported by Axios, which marked a striking reversal of the stance he struck in Wolff’s telling.
In addition to Miller, other senior administration officials made the rounds of Sunday news talk shows to decry the book’s claims. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Wolff’s characterization of Trump as averse to digesting classified briefing material was “ludicrous,” and the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, insisted that those around Trump “love their country and respect their president.”
Trump is known to closely monitor aides’ televised performances in putting forth his case, and he gleefully weighed in within moments of Miller’s televised clash with “State of the Union” host Jake Tapper. CNN has long been a particular target of Trump’s ire.
“Jake Tapper of Fake News just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller,” the president tweeted. “Watch the hatred and unfairness of this CNN flunky!”
Trump’s reaction, however, seemed to bolster Tapper’s on-air depiction of Miller as using his appearance on the show to play to the president rather than addressing questions put to him. “I get it — there’s one viewer that you care about,” the host said exasperatedly after Miller turned the discussion repeatedly to negative news coverage of the president while deflecting specific queries.
Wolff, interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” acknowledged some minor errors in the book but said he emphatically stood by its overall thrust, including its portrayal of Trump as uninformed and unstable in the view of his aides.
“This is alarming in every way,” he said.
Prior to the abrupt conclusion of the CNN interview, Miller vigorously defended Trump’s political acumen, referring indirectly to the president’s description of himself on Saturday as a genius — and “a very stable genius at that.”
“I saw a man who is a political genius,” Miller said of the candidate he observed over many months, adding that Trump had “tapped into something magical that is happening in the hearts of this country.”
Haley, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said she had not heard anyone in Trump’s circle question his stability. Instead, she credited Trump with pushing back appropriately against bombastic threats by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
After Kim said in a New Year’s message that he had a nuclear button at the ready, Trump retorted that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
While some of the president’s critics were incredulous over the schoolyard tone of the exchange, Haley defended it.
“We want to always remind them, ‘We can destroy you too, so be very careful with your words and what you do,’” Haley said. She added that a perceived element of unpredictability on the president’s part was “not a bad thing, it’s really not.”
One of the president’s most consistent critics, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), however, said the Wolff book’s overall thesis reflected the concerns of many in Congress, whether or not lawmakers were willing to air them publicly.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in Congress, frankly, of either party, who does not concur at least privately with those observations and concerns” about Trump’s fitness for office, Schiff said on “State of the Union.”