Michael Wolff is up. Steve Bannon is down. And 2018 is off to a ferocious start.
In the world of US politics, 2018 has arrived with fire and fury.
Donald Trump has split with former top adviser Steve Bannon.
The president’s detractors are touting the revelations in Michael Wolff’s explosive new book as confirmation of every suspicion they had about the man and his fitness for office.
Mr Trump is back on Twitter, lashing out at the media, Democrats and critics everywhere.
The White House is in full bunker mode, enforcing a workplace ban on personal mobile phones of staff members with new vigour.
The president’s lawyer is rattling off cease-and-desist letters like he’s being paid by the word.
As Americans hunker down on a frigid weekend to read the juiciest parts of Fire and Fury, the dust is settling from this latest political storm.
Who are the winners and losers?
During a television interview on Friday morning, the author – a man known in media circles but hardly a household name for most Americans – was basking in the glow of the national spotlight. He quipped that he should send the president a box of chocolates for giving him the kind of publicity money can’t buy.
Thanks to the frenetic response from the White House when excerpts of his book first started hitting the press earlier this week, Fire and Fury has shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.
Some have groused that the author largely built his work upon prior reporting by major US media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times. Others have questioned the accuracy of details in the book.
Trump supporter Sebastian Gorka, in an interview with BBC News, pointed to an author’s note in which Wolff acknowledges that his work is based on occasionally conflicting accounts, some of which were “baldly untrue”. Wolff says he sometimes allowed disagreements to remain in the text so reader could judge, while in other passages he “settled on a version of events I believe to be true”.
Wolff says he has tapes and notes to back up his assertions, although he has yet to indicate whether he will release them.
It’s clear, however, that the author is the currently the brightest star in the media firmament – and for a man who seems to adore being The Man, that’s winning and winning big.
The former White House chief strategist went from mastermind of Mr Trump’s presidential victory and Time Magazine cover boy to “Sloppy Steve”, as the president has now nicknamed him, in less than a year.
It has been quite a reversal of fortune.
In early 2017, Bannon boasted about how he was going to oversee nothing less than the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and usher in a new conservative populism, joining working-class Americans with evangelical conservatives to cement an enduring governing majority.
After he was forced out of the White House in mid-August, he pledged to launch a movement that would try to unseat incumbent Republican senators he viewed as insufficiently loyal to Mr Trump and his nationalist policies.
His first candidate was Roy Moore who, after being mired in allegations of sexual misconduct, became the first Republican senator to lose to a Democrat in deeply conservative Alabama in 25 years.
That defeat may have been the beginning of the end for Bannon’s influence. If there’s one thing Mr Trump won’t abide, it’s a loser – and the president pointed to the Alabama defeat in his scathing letter repudiating Bannon after the Fire and Fury excerpts hit the press this week.
Throw in that Bannon directed sharp, personal insults at Mr Trump and his family – calling daughter Ivanka “dumb as a brick” and saying Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner may have committed treason by meeting with Russians during the presidential campaign – and his fate was sealed.
According to reports, the White House informed its supporters that they would have to choose between the president and Bannon – and, by and large, they have fallen in line behind Mr Trump. Rebekah Mercer, a deep-pocketed benefactor of Bannon’s, issued a statement saying she had terminated her support for his political efforts. Reports are swirling that Bannon may be forced out from atop conservative media empire Breitbart News.
While US politics is full of second and third acts, 64-year-old Bannon – with funding disappearing and influence waning – is approaching a career nadir. If this is a Trump-Bannon war, it has been a rout.
Shortly after the president released his scathing statement in which he asserted that Bannon had “lost his mind”, Mitch McConnell’s campaign Twitter account sent out a short video clip of the Senate majority leader sitting at his desk, smiling broadly.
No words were included. None was needed. The Senate majority leader had very publicly feuded with Bannon since the ousted presidential adviser declared it his 2018 goal to see Mr McConnell stripped of his leadership position and his Senate allies ousted.
Now that particularly unpleasant thorn is gone from Mr McConnell’s side. Senate Republicans running for election in 2018, many of whom had been nervously eyeing their right flank for potential – or actual – challenges from Bannon-backed insurgents, are breathing a sigh of relief.
For Republicans, the 2018 congressional mid-term elections are going to be hard enough to manage in a political environment that appears to be trending toward highly motivated Democratic voters.
If Republicans have to spend time and effort fending off primary challenges – or if fringe candidates end up winning primaries then flaming out, like Mr Moore, under the general election pressure – a bad year for their party could become much, much worse.
For Mr McConnell and his fellow party faithful, that possibility just got less likely. Smiles are more than warranted.
This could have been, perhaps even should have been, a very good week for Mr Trump. The New Year marks the start of his reformed tax system, passed after considerable effort last month. The Dow Jones stock market index broke 25,000 for the first time in history, and unemployment numbers – while not quite as impressive as originally predicted – are still at healthy lows.
A string of big corporations have announced at least temporary boosts to employee salaries, crediting the tax reform law. Doom-and-gloom predictions of economic disaster during the Trump presidency have been proven unfounded. If Americans tend to vote on economic concerns, this should be encouraging news for the incumbent party.
Instead, the president has been beset by internal divisions. One of his closest allies not only gave credence to a Russia investigation Mr Trump had labelled a “witch hunt”, he directly implicated the president’s closest family members.
Fire and Fury paints a portrait of a president wholly unprepared for high office, a man treated by his senior staff as a child, unable to focus on anything but “immediate gratification”. It makes claims that Mr Trump may be suffering from diminished mental capacity, prone to repeating himself and sometimes unable to recognise even close friends.
It doesn’t matter if the allegations are fully substantiated by on-the-ground reporting or not, they will ring true for Trump’s critics and feed the perception that he is temperamentally ill-suited for his job.
Politics isn’t beanbag, as the saying goes, and it certainly isn’t always fair.
At the very least, this has been a terrible distraction for a White House and a Congress facing some tight legislative deadlines in the weeks ahead. Every day spent on damage control is a day where Republicans are unable to advance their policy priorities on budgeting, immigration, health insurance, infrastructure spending and a host of other issues.
If Mr Trump was the big winner in 2016, right on his heels was the formerly obscure right-wing website Breitbart News, which became the voice of the nationalist Trump movement. Bannon, their once and future publisher, had a prominent position in the White House and their influence was at an all-time high.
Now, however, the media empire is caught in a particularly unpleasant pincer. Their leader is out of favour with the president, and reporters and editors covering the feud have had to walk a fine line between the two parties.