“We’re just finishing,” #Steve Bannon told me. “Reince is giving me my daily back massage.”
The two men burst into a fit of conspiratorial laughter.
“Off the record!” #Reince Priebus said.
“Off the record!” Bannon repeated.
They continued to laugh.
It was Tuesday morning and, having just returned from a weekend jaunt to the “Winter White House” in Palm Beach, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist and the White House chief of staff huddled in the latter’s West Wing office to, as they put it, “help make the truth come out.” Specifically, the two men wanted to address, in each other’s company, reports in the media — many based on quotes from high-level White House officials —that they are engaged in a bitter, zero-sum power struggle to win primacy with Trump, instead of continuing to function as improbable co-equals. The contest is now, the story goes, being waged in the form of damaging leaks about each other.
Plenty of savvy media observers see obvious intent in the gush of leaks now coming out of the White House. “If you read between the lines in some of the anonymous quotes,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama, said, “it’s clear that Bannon, [Jared] Kushner, and Priebus are spending half their time blaming each other and the other half ensuring they don’t get the blame.”
But Bannon and Priebus said these impressions are wrong, and that rumors and reports that they are furiously leaking to gut each other and gain more sway with Trump are mostly media inventions. Any leaks come from lower down the totem pole. The truth, they said, is that they are rather chummy.
Bannon and Priebus spoke with me on a prearranged conference call, joined by Katie Walsh, Priebus’s deputy, and Lindsay Walters, deputy to press secretary Sean Spicer. For about 25 minutes, talking into Walsh’s cell phone on speaker mode, Bannon and Priebus performed a buddy comedy, finishing each other’s sentences and swearing up and down that they are good friends who work together well — and constantly.
“I’m quite aggressive, and Reince is a calming influence on hey — bang bang bang, here’s how we ought to think about doing that,” Bannon said, explaining how their personal styles complement each other.
“We talk a lot, pretty much all day long,” Priebus said. “And then we communicate at night —”
“Until we fall asleep,” Bannon interjected with a laugh.
Priebus cut in, “Until somebody falls asleep … You fell asleep last night.”
“I did,” Bannon said.
“I think, like, a quarter to 11,” Priebus added.
“I did,” Bannon said.
“He became unresponsive,” Priebus laughed.