ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump held meetings today with Republican senators on immigration and other issues. This weekend, he's expected to huddle with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan at Camp David. Their goal is to try to build on the success of the tax legislation they passed at the end of the year. So far, these first few days of 2018 at the White House have been dominated by questions about a feud between President Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about this. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Yesterday on this program, we heard this extraordinary statement from President Trump lashing out at Bannon after Bannon was quoted by author Michael Wolff saying some incendiary things about Trump and members of his family. So have we heard yet from Bannon?
LIASSON: We have. Last night on a Breitbart radio program on Sirius XM, Bannon pretty much stayed away from talking about that book. But when a caller referred to it, he did proclaim himself a big fan of President Trump.
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STEVE BANNON: President of the United States is a great man. You know, I support him day in and day out whether going through the country giving the Trump Miracle speech or on the show or on the website. So I don't think you have to worry about that.
LIASSON: But Bannon did not deny the quotes that he has given, number one that the president's daughter was dumb as a brick, that the president's son-in-law and sons meeting with the Russian lawyer was treasonous or, for that matter, a quote he gave earlier to Vanity Fair that Trump wouldn't last out his term.
SHAPIRO: And so then back to the president. What has the president said today about Bannon?
LIASSON: When reporters asked him about Bannon today, he referenced those nice words that Bannon said on the radio. And then he went on to say this.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know. He called me a great man last night. So, you know, he obviously changed his tune pretty quick.
LIASSON: I was in that pool spray. I asked him why if he had said in that statement yesterday - that scathing statement - that when Bannon was fired he lost his job but also lost his mind - why then did Trump continue to talk to Steve Bannon? He said, I don't talk to him; that's a misnomer.
SHAPIRO: His lawyers apparently do make legal threats to Bannon. Tell us about those legal threats.
LIASSON: Trump's outside lawyers have sent a cease and desist letter to Bannon, also to Michael Wolff and to the publisher of the book. They're threatening to sue all of them, although the publisher has moved up the release date of the book to Friday instead of next Tuesday. But Trump threatening to sue is a very familiar tactic in his political and in his business life. He often threatens lawsuits to dozens of people who criticize him, but he doesn't often follow through. And if he does sue Steve Bannon, he opens himself up to the possibility of being deposed during discovery.
SHAPIRO: What does this break with the president mean for Steve Bannon's role going into the 2018 midterms?
LIASSON: Well, it's a big setback for Bannon - big victory for his arch-enemy Mitch McConnell. You know, Bannon was planning on challenging every incumbent Republican senator except Ted Cruz in an effort to depose Mitch McConnell as the Republican Senate Leader. And for the moment, he or Michael Wolff have pushed Trump into the arms of McConnell. The last sentence of that scathing statement yesterday was talking about how Bannon wanted to burn everything down. It sounded like what Mitch McConnell would say.
So I think the bottom line is he's much less of a factor in the 2018 primaries than he was a month ago. On the other hand, he is the keeper of Trump's nationalist, populist flame. And Breitbart, at least on the issue of immigration, the No. 1 core issue for a lot of Trump's base, is still very important. And we're at a moment when the president is going to try to figure out how to make a deal with Democrats on DACA without antagonizing his core supporters.
SHAPIRO: This cannot be the way the administration wanted to start the new year.
LIASSON: Absolutely not. The administration and Republicans were coming off a huge victory with the tax cut bill. Their morale was boosted. They have a good economy, DOW at 25,000. And then the president jumps in, engaged with Steve Bannon, gives new fuel to this fire, kind of elevates the conflict...
LIASSON: ...to DEFCON 5, guarantees the book is going to be a bestseller. This is not where Republicans wanted to be.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.