The US President's former chief strategist Steve Bannon gave NHK an exclusive interview in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Bannon wielded strong influence in the Trump administration. He was described as the president's closest aide and behind-the-scenes fixer. But his hardline stance created conflicts within the administration, leading to his departure from the White House in August.
Bannon spoke to us about his thoughts on Trump, as well as relations with Japan and China, and the North Korea threat.
‒‒‒ I want to ask you about your relationship with President Trump. So do you keep daily contact or frequent contact with President Trump even now?
Bannon: Not daily contact, but we keep in touch with each other. We talk every couple of days. I haven't talked to him since his Asian trip, since he started. But before then we'd talk every couple of days. So have a very good relationship with President Trump. He's somebody I greatly admire and had the great opportunity to work very closely with both in the campaign and then at the White House. So I greatly admire him and try to stay as close to him as possible.
‒‒‒ So please could you disclose some topics or advice you gave him?
Bannon: Well, I don't like to go into what we talk about. But when President Trump calls, he's normally talking about the issues that are on his mind. Political issues. Other things related to either things he's seen on TV or things he's read in the newspaper. Or maybe some of the discussions he's having in the Oval Office.
So President Trump, he goes by what I call the Socratic method. He's not a person who's going to read a 100‒page report. But what he'll do is read the precis of that and then ask a lot of questions. Or he'll always ask people questions. So he'll go throughout different advisors, people that are friends of his, people he's known throughout his life and ask them questions. So he's constantly asking questions and constantly inquiring of people. And so I consider myself to be very fortunate, very lucky to be in that group.
He's very attuned to what's happening politically in the United States, right? He's always asking questions about that. If he has a policy that's on his mind, whether it's health care or taxes, he'll normally ask some of his current advisors and former advisors. He'll make sure that he bounces those ideas off you. So it's really politics and policy. If there are things that he's thinking about on the international scene, he'll bounce those ideas off you, too. But many of the people that work for President Trump in the campaign, some of the senior guys like Cory Lewandowski, or Dave Bossie, or people that, or people like Tom Barrack, who is very close friend of his, he'll talk to those people on a pretty continual basis.
‒‒‒ And President Trump came to Japan. And how do you evaluate his visit, his trip to Japan?
Bannon: When I was at the White House, we had the summit with Prime Minister Abe at the White House. And they went down to play golf in Mar‒a‒Lago. He is very personally close I think to Abe. He considers him a colleague and I think a friend. So they had a very good relationship. And they bonded also on the golf course when they played in the United States. I think he did the same thing here.
He really thinks I think very highly of Abe as a thinker and also a man of action. So when I've been with the president at the Mar‒a‒Lago summit, as you remember, we had the Korean situation that weekend and actually had a live broadcast from Mar‒a‒Lago late Saturday night. I think it was early Sunday morning. A lot went on. President Trump just thinks very highly of him.
‒‒‒ But in the campaign, President Trump was a little bit of a hard liner for Japan, especially in trade issues, trading balances. So did he change his attitude to Japan?
Bannon: I don't think it's a change. Remember, the whole concept we have here, the difference between America first and the way things have been going, you have this thing called the construct or the concept is the postwar rules‒based international order. And if you go all the way from Western Europe around the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca, South China Sea, all the way up to Japan and Northwest Pacific, that whole kind of ring around the Asian landmass is really a construct of the United States and its allies after World War II with international organizations.
So you have an inextricably linked set of commercial relationships, trade deals, capital markets underwritten really by an American security guarantee whether that's the United States Navy, or the Army, or the Air Force. People are questioning I think today, "Can America actually continue to sustain that overall commitment by itself? Or do its allies have to pitch in more?"
The central thing I think that President Trump brings up that no other leader in the country's really kind of seen how inextricably linked they are is these trade relationships with the security guarantee. And it's not that he's any more hard line. What he said in the campaign is still essentially what he's saying today. And it's not singling out South Korea, or Japan, or others for unfair treatment. It's just saying, "Hey, we have to be in a trading relationship that is reciprocal." That's the term he keeps using, reciprocal. And in that reciprocal trade relationship it would somehow have a balance so that we don't always run current account deficits, which has really translated to America losing a lot of manufacturing jobs or a lot of what is productivity or actually making things.
And so what President Trump I believe is saying and what the America first concept is, it's not America being isolationist. It's really America being in a direct partnership. And that's why I think there is this move against having these big overall multilateral deals like TPP. But I think the president argued and why I believe the American people supported him in the campaign and one of the reasons they voted him into office was what they would rather have is a strong bilateral relationship in this case with China. We have a reciprocal trade deal that makes sense and kind of balances out. And then you have a very strong military alliance of which both parties understand what their commitments are to that alliance and go forward. And I believe for the United States over the long haul it's going to really balance out our deficit issues and things like that. So I think it's not to single out Japan. And it's not that he's any more hard liner in the campaign than he is today. I think it's just this kind of understanding that we have to put all these relationships in balance.
‒‒‒ Regarding TPP, do you believe the United States will no longer come back to the TPP?
Bannon: I think Breitbart, the news site I ran, was one of the news sites really against TPP. And since the United States pulled out of it, and we did it when I was in the White House, I don't believe as the original TPP deal was structured that the United States would be a participant in that. What the U.S. doesn't want to do is get into any more relationships, whether it's the Paris Accord or TPP, where you're one of dozens of participants and you're kind of held by the rules of the smallest participant.
What I think people in the United States would rather have is real clarity. These other deals are kind of very muddled. You don't really know what you're getting into. The ramifications of those are only known years later. I think people are very concerned about what I call the unintended consequences of deals like that. So what I'd rather it be is something that's very highlighted, people understand it.
And so that would be a set of bilateral deals with Japan, a bilateral deal with South Korea, with Vietnam, with Singapore, with other countries in the region so you had a much stronger bilateral relationship. And those parties when they get together and do something whether militarily or otherwise, it's up to those countries to participate or not participate. But I wouldn't believe that the United States would get into TPP on its old terms. Maybe some reconstructed terms, you never know what could happen. But I don't anticipate that. What I do anticipate is much more focus on a strong bilateral trade deal with Japan and with South Korea.
‒‒‒ In Asia President Trump repeatedly emphasized the importance of increasing pressure on North Korea. So do you think military action is realistic against North Korea?
Bannon: It's the difference between being realistic and what is the option? I was very public before that the military option against North Korea is fairly limited. Now, I say that as a civilian that's not in the administration anymore.
I believe and I've said from day one the situation with North Korea should be handled the United States to China. That is a direct bilateral negotiation that should take place to me. And I've said this from day one. I believe China is absolutely the controlling entity in North Korea. I think North Korea's a client state of China. I've been pretty adamant about that. I think anything that takes people's eyes off the ball and tries to get people into some sort of negotiation or some sort of situation with North Korea really takes your eye off what it should be. And that is it should be the United States and China. The United States should continue to pressure China to make sure that North Korea deescalates.
I know the Chinese have reemphasized they want a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. I think that's a positive thing. I do believe there's a lot more China can do. China has not agreed to banning all shipments of oil to North Korea. I believe if you really want to get to some rectification of this situation, you have to get to those types of sanctions. So I think that if the United States continues to pressure China, I think you'll have a very positive outcome. And I think that would be very, very positive to the Japanese people.
‒‒‒ And according to the U.S. media, in August you stated that there were no military options regarding North Korea, right?
Bannon: Yeah. I did say that in an interview. I have been of just the belief that the military options in North Korea, when we say military options the direct military option in North Korea, have always been quite limited. That's my point in that statement, was that the option is between the United States and China. That China has tremendous leverage over North Korea. North Korea's a client state of China's. It's China that supplies them their oil. It's China that really supplies them everything that they kind of build their economy off of. And so I think it's incumbent upon China and the United States to continue to pressure China. I believe that China can make sure that North Korea denuclearizes.
‒‒‒ Could you explain your strategy to China? So how is China positioned in President Trump's strategy against North Korea? How much cooperation do you think the United States can obtain from China?
Bannon: I think the United States can obtain a lot of cooperation from China. It's in China's best interest to make sure that North Korea's denuclearized. The other is that the United States still has quite a bit of leverage over China. The ability to sanction Chinese companies, to really put severe sanctions on Chinese companies, the ability to really cut off China from the world's financial markets. The ability to cut their banks off from the world's capital markets. The United States has tremendous operating leverage over China if it wanted to actually bring that to bear. I think with President Trump he's got a very strong and I believe positive relationship with President Xi. I think that he and President Xi over time will figure this problem out.
‒‒‒ So you feel that cooperation from China is positive?
Bannon: President Trump, I think if you asked him, he would say that the trip to China was very positive. And I think he feels he's making real progress. So we'll have to see over time. But I believe he feels he's making real progress in this area.
‒‒‒ So how do you evaluate President Trump's trip to China this time?
Bannon: Look. He's got a very strong relationship with President Xi. They clearly have a lot of chemistry with each other. President Trump, as I said today earlier in my speech, he is someone who has a negotiating strategy that's very tied to I think the people that he's dealing with. I think in the administration's perspective I think they feel it was very, very positive. The whole Asian trip I believe they feel was very, very positive.
And I think that they feel the Chinese part of that was very positive. They announced over $200 billion of deals between Chinese companies and American companies or between the Chinese market and American companies. I believe that if you look at everything that was announced, he felt he made real progress in the discussions on North Korea. So I think net‒net they believe that the trip and particularly the Chinese part of it went quite well.
‒‒‒ And can I ask you about some internal politics of the United States? You've declared war on the GOP. Could you explain the details?
Bannon: The GOP establishment. I just think the establishment hasn't served President Trump very well. Number one, I don't think they've been there for President Trump. I think they did a terrible job of repealing and replacing Obamacare. I think that they have done a very poor job in managing these committees they actually have investigating the Trump campaign for collusion with the Russians. I think that those committees have basically gotten out of control.
Today on Capitol Hill in the Senate they actually had a committee where they talked about the president's ability to use nuclear weapons. I just think that the GOP establishment as personified by Mitch McConnell has not done a good job of putting forward and supporting the president's agenda.
And I'm adamantly opposed to that. In addition, over a number of years we've kind of had this battle between the grassroots organizations. And you know I'm a populist, right? I kind of came into the Trump campaign off of a news site that really is the news site that has a lot of populist news in it and plays to the working class and to the middle class.
Not the wealthy and not the big donors in the Republican Party. So there's always been a natural tension between the grassroots, the little guy, what President Trump calls the forgotten man and the big shots. And so I think that's just kind of spilled over into this fight that we're having in the United States Senate between the grassroots organizations and Mitch McConnell.
‒‒‒ And please tell us your strategy for the midterm election and President Trump's winning of the midterm election.
Bannon: I've told the president this many, many times. If he sticks to his plan of economic growth, repeal Obamacare, build the wall, start to take care of illegal immigration, if he just sticks to that plan, I believe, and I've said this publicly many times, he will pick up anywhere from three to five seats in the Senate. And I think he'll hold the House of Representatives. So I think it'll be a very successful 2018.
And I think we're on track to do that. And so anything that takes us off of that track I don't think is a good thing. Because I think President Trump's got many positive policy initiatives. People should understand the U.S. economy is growing over 3% right now. And we don't even have a tax cut in there to accelerate that growth.
Just his economic nationalist policies already. You see more business investment. I think business investment's up 10%. The stock market's increased wealth I think by $5 trillion. We have the lowest Hispanic unemployment rate in 11 years, the lowest black unemployment rate in 17 years. I think it's the overall lowest unemployment rate in 19 years. And wages are finally starting to rise both in construction and agriculture.
So you're starting to see the American economy come back with over 3% growth, which nobody ever thought we would get to particularly without a tax cut. A significant tax cut, which we have in the plan. So you can look at 2018 and maybe see 4% growth. So I think President Trump does not get the credit he deserves. These plans and programs he's been putting in are really starting to click. And he doesn't get really any credit for this.
If you look at the first year of his administration, a couple things he promised. He said on the inauguration day that he would unite the civilized world to eradicate radical Islamic jihad or terrorism from the face of the earth. And that's a very big promise. But if you look in the first nine or 10 months, he's taken the physical caliphate of ISIS. As a reporter, I'm sure you remember this.
In 2014 ISIS had essentially 8 million people under its rule in the Middle East between Iraq and Syria. It had tax revenues. It had oilfields. It had wheat fields. It was actively recruiting in Western Europe and the United States. Today that physical caliphate has been annihilated. Under General Mattis with guidance from President Trump we physically annihilated in Mosul, and Raqqah, and other cities, physically destroyed the caliphate of ISIS in addition to having this tremendous economic growth, in addition to putting in federal judges and to deconstruct the regulatory state in the United States. He's had tremendous, tremendous, tremendous victories. But the mainstream media doesn't give him a lot of credit.
‒‒‒ Again, North Korea, President Trump said all options on the table, right? So who insisted military option on North Korea?
Bannon: When he says all options on the table, as commander‒in‒chief he wants to look at all options. I think that's smart. That's why he was the Pentagon. He has the National Security Council. He has the C.I.A. Also in conjunction with allies like South Korea, Japan, and others. He wants to keep all options on the table, which I think is smart.
President Trump's not somebody that just jumps to some conclusion and then goes and takes action. He's somebody that really weighs and measures. So when he says there's a wide range of options, remember he's going through each one and looking at it. And that's why I think that relationship with Prime Minister Abe's so important. Because they communicate a lot and they talk a lot. And I'm sure when they talk, they talk about these options.
‒‒‒ President Trump deployed three aircraft carriers to the Japan Sea. Is that just to be seen or just performance?
Bannon: I think you have to look at that as the various options. I was in the Pacific fleet, right? I often went with a carrier battle group. When you send a carrier battle group, it gets people's attention. I think, number one, you need to do it just so you've got those types of exercises so people know how to work together. The various navies know how to work in unison and in partnership.
So I think that's smart. It's also sending a signal that this is an important part of the world and we're prepared to deploy resources and assets here to assist our friends and allies in places like Japan or in South Korea. So I think, once again, it's very smart. They're like chess pieces that you move around. That whole thing of deploying assets from the 7th fleet, once again it shows you a range of options that he's always thinking through. Always thinking what's the best mix and match.
‒‒‒ But your opinion is the best is to cooperate with China.
Bannon: Cooperate with China, yes. But, remember, in cooperation with China, one of the things that brings that cooperation to the forefront is the fact that you've got the ability to deploy three carrier battle groups. It shouldn't be lost on people that that's a lot of firepower. It can bring a lot of attention.
I was very proud to be in the United States Navy for many years. I was in the Pacific fleet. I was in the 7th fleet. I pulled into Japan many times. As a young naval officer I actually came with my crew. And part of us climbed Mount Fuji one time when we had some time off here in Japan. So we would go to Yokosuka, right? The naval station at Yokosuka many times. We'd be in the Sea of Japan. We did exercises with the self‒defense force of the Japanese navy. We did exercises with the South Korean navy and the Japanese navy in the Sea of Japan many, many times.
The United States Navy is always out there doing exercises, et cetera. I think when you have those types of assets like the carrier battle groups it makes your negotiations with the leaders in China I think have a little more emphasis, right? Because you've got these assets that you can deploy.
‒‒‒ But it looks like a stalemate on the North Korean issue.
Bannon: That's your opinion. I don't think it's a stalemate at all. I don't know why you would use the word a stalemate. It's come up. It's a process. Something like North Korea is not going to be solved overnight. It's taken us 30 or 40 years to get here, right? People saying, "They didn't have a nuclear program. They didn't have a nuclear program. They didn't have a nuclear program."
Now, we know they have a nuclear program. So it's taken many decades to get here. Somebody's not going to walk in and wave a magic wand. And you're not going to solve the problem overnight. It's a process. I think President Trump is engaged in that process. He has a taken a personal interest in that process.
You see, this is once again what I call the opposition party. NHK's taken their proper role. I get a special call out now for NHK taking their proper role on the New York Times. You must be the CNN of Japan, right? You put provocative terms like stalemate. "It must be a stalemate." You see, it's not a stalemate. It's not a stalemate at all. It's actually a process. President Trump's going through the process. That's why he says he has a range of options. That's why he send carrier battle groups up here. It's all part of a strategic chess match of which Japan is a great ally in helping us out. But you have very smart people like Prime Minister Abe and President Trump. And that's how they work through these types of issues.
‒‒‒ So it's not‒‒
Bannon: What's a stalemate is you keep coming at me with these North Korean questions. That's a stalemate. Come on. Bring it. Bring it. Let's have a couple more.
‒‒‒ But President Trump said that time is running out, right? So how can he break through this situation?
Bannon: Once again, I think he's engaged with the Chinese leadership. So that's what I would say. You saw it in China during the visit. President Trump I think has done a lot of this to bring to the forefront that the Korean issue is an important issue. And it's got to be focused on by the great powers in the area. South Korea, Japan, and the United States, and China. And also Russia I think it behooves everyone that the United States went to the U.N. Security Council. I think it's twice they've gotten 15‒to‒nothing votes on sanctions with no abstentions. China didn't abstain. Russia didn't abstain. That shows you how serious the United States is taking this effort. It shows you how important they think it is and what a great job that Ambassador Nikki Haley has done.
So I think people are engaged. And I think sometimes President Trump tweets or says something to make sure that people understand the urgency. One thing you notice about President Trump, and I noticed this in working with him on the campaign, he's a person of urgency. He wants to get things done bang, bang, bang. So I know this is a high priority for him. And I know that's why keeps it at the forefront.
‒‒‒ In some media it was reported that you talked with the Chinese Communist Party member Wang Qishan in September in Beijing. Is that fact news or fake news?
Bannon: No, that's real news. I gave a talk sponsored by CITIC, the large financial institution in China, through their Hong Kong subsidiary CLSA. And I came and talked about the economic war that currently exists to a large extent I believe, my personal belief, between China and the United States. And Wang Qishan through an intermediary asked me to come up. And I spent several hours with him talking about various topics.