Commentary: Donald, Steve and the end of the bromance

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Steve Bannon may not be much of a human being, but at least he seems to have taught President Donald Trump something.

White nationalists aren’t such fine people, after all.

John Krull, publisher,

The tiff the president is having with his former chief strategist, campaign guru and deputy chief of staff would be tawdry, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Trump is upset because of comments Bannon has made in Michael Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury,” and elsewhere.

Among other things, Bannon said the meeting the president’s son Don Jr. and other campaign leaders took with Russian emissaries trying to peddle dirt on Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” He also more than hinted that the president, his associates and family may be guilty of money-laundering.

As a final touch, Bannon suggested that the members of the Trump family are so dumb their collective IQs might not reach double digits.

Trump being Trump, the president reacted with fury.

He blasted Bannon in a series of tweets and statements and unveiled a typically Trumpian degrading nickname – “Sloppy Steve” – for his onetime Svengali. The president also had his lawyers send cease-and-desist letters not to just to Bannon, but to the book’s author, Wolff, and publisher.

The letters were a panicky move.

All the lawyers’ threats managed to do was move the release date of Wolff’s book up four days – because of public demand, the publisher said – and guarantee that it will sell several hundred thousand more copies. Wolff will cry all the way to the bank.

Worse, the president’s reaction demonstrated Trump still doesn’t understand some things.

The first is important in terms of his acceptance of his role and responsibilities. The second speaks to his powers of perception.

First, Trump’s decision to have his lawyers try to stop people from saying uncomplimentary things about him shows he doesn’t understand what it means to be president.

Presidents are public figures – almost public property. Anyone can say almost anything about them.

If this weren’t the case, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton could have captured huge settlements from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and, yes, Donald Trump for attacking their characters and demeaning them while they were in office and after. For the same reason, George W. Bush likely would have been able to lay claim to everything filmmaker Michael Moore and (then) radio talk show host and author Al Franken owned.

This always has been the case.

Many of the protections against defamation extended to ordinary citizens don’t apply to presidents and other public officials. One reason is we Americans always have valued robust discussion of public issues and have not wanted to limit expression, even when that expression veers toward nastiness.

A second reason is we want to remind the people who hold public office that they are servants, not masters.

Every president since George Washington has been maligned. The ones with gravitas realize accepting harsh criticism is part of the job, and do their grousing about ill treatment in private.

Insecure and immature presidents, on the other hand, fire off cease-and-desist letters to critics.

The president’s faulty perception isn’t as big a deal as his inability to comprehend the nature of his responsibilities, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in his judgment.

Trump was slow – oh so slow – to grasp who and what Steve Bannon is. The president now may want to diminish Bannon’s role in his campaign and presidency, but the facts undercut that contention.

He pushed to have Bannon on the National Security Council and took his counsel on matters both foreign and domestic.

The president did not seem to realize then or for a long time after that the reason Steve Bannon could enter rooms without opening doors is that he slithers under them.

True leaders must be able to read people.

Donald Trump either misread Steve Bannon from the beginning or, if he did read him correctly, didn’t care that he was giving a snake access to the world’s most powerful office.

Neither possibility is reassuring.

The fact that Donald Trump let a guy like Bannon get into the White House without a ticket and a tour guide should be a source of shame to this president.

And to us.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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