'I like Steve, but...'

**Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.**

On the roster: ‘I like Steve, but…’ - A win but a warning for GOP in Kansas House race - Tense talks as Putin agrees to meet Tillerson - Chinese pitch in to corral Norks - Woof…

It would appear that senior White House advisor Steve Bannon is just the latest in a long line of those who tried and failed to put Donald Trump in a corner.

The president, in an interview with NYP’s Michael Goodwin, threw more shade than a sequoia on the man who conventional wisdom has long held is not only the architect of Trumpism, but the Iago darkly manipulating the new president.

The conventional wisdom, it would seem, is all wet when it comes to Bannon.

There’s a fairly straightforward explanation for Trump not only diminishing Bannon’s perceived role but also issuing a public ultimatum to his onetime top advisor vis-à-vis continued White House infighting “to straighten it out or I will.”

Bannon tried to muscle Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and found himself crossways with the boss’s daughter, never a good place to be in any organization.

But there is something else at work here, too: the remaking of Trump’s political brand.

If someone would have told you six months ago that Trump would be riding strong public approval for intervening in the Syrian civil war, putting U.S.-Russia relations in a deep freeze, celebrating cooperation with China, pummeling the most conservative members of the House and turning increasingly toward the guidance of establishment political and policy figures you might have, at the very least, been surprised.

You could say that Trump is moving left with his embracive interventionism and bipartisanship, but you could also say that Trump is turning his back on the neo-Jacksonian Revolution that Bannon & Co. once ordained.

It would seem the moment of truth for Bannon came when Trump took his most explicit step toward the more traditional understanding of the modern presidency with the Syria strikes.
If you were applying the usual rules of politics, Trump simply couldn’t bomb Syria.

It would throw over the bid to rebalance global power around a new U.S.-Russia alliance aimed at containing China. It would reestablish America’s role as the superpower policeman of the world. It would expend substantial sums and place American credibility on the line in a conflict with no immediate threat to the country Trump is governing.

It doesn’t sound much like the “America first” policy that Bannon sketched out in Trump’s inaugural address.

But if anyone should have known by now that rhetorical or ideological consistency is not a North Star for Trump, it should be Bannon.

He watched and no doubt cheered as Trump reversed himself on issues far and wide during the campaign. Once a defender of partial-birth abortion, Trump declared himself pro-life. Once a friend and donor to Hillary Clinton, Trump said she should be in jail. Once a proponent on enormous tax increases, Trump came to love Laffer curve. Once a critic of Mitt Romney’s harsh rhetoric about illegal immigrants, Trump, well… you know.

The misconception among Bannon and some other Trump supporters seems to have been that he would have to abide by the views under which he was elected – that somehow this would place a seal of permanency on his previously always fungible views.

That’s not how this is going to be.

Conservatives lament the increasing sway of Democrats within the administration, including Kushner and former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn. Many on the right take seriously Trump’s threat to work with Democrats on his proposal for massive stimulus spending, health insurance and other initiatives.

Similarly, those opposed to American interventions overseas in both parties are now in something of a panic as their guy increasingly surrounds himself with a foreign policy team that George W. Bush would have been very happy to call his own.

The whispered accusation here is that Trump swindled supporters by taking positions during the campaign that he did not truly hold. But that misses the mark and misunderstands what Trumpism really is.

Trump was not a closet Democrat masquerading as a quasi-isolationist. He was a guy trying to win an election. What he was saying was working, mostly, so he went with it. And in that way Trump understands populism better than the self-described populists.

As the president tries to find sure footing for his administration, he is looking to give the people what they want.

Those who style themselves as populists are really, as Andrew Jackson was, anti-establishmentarians. Destroying the administrative state and bringing the federal government to a crashing halt or allowing ObamaCare to crash and burn as a political payback may be assaults on the establishments of both parties, but would probably be about as popular as allowing dictators to get away with gassing children.

Trump is finding a new way – call it “popularism” if you like – and the folks who thought they could constrain him by his prior promises and positions are in for some rough sledding. It will be approval ratings, not doctrines, that carry the day.

“The natural strength of the people in a large community, in proportion to the artificial strength of the government, is greater than in a small [community], and of course more competent to a struggle with the attempts of the government to establish a tyranny.” –Alexander HamiltonFederalist No. 28

Nat Geo: “Rabbits are the third most popular pet in America, after cats and dogs, according to the Humane Society of the United States—and the third most abandoned. Most Americans have a sense of how long cats and dogs live, the kind of care they need, their behaviors. But rabbits? … In fact, with proper care, rabbits live 10 to 12 years. People’s understanding of them seems to be out of step with their ubiquity. This disconnect appears to drive impulse pet rabbit purchases, says Anne Martin, executive director of the House Rabbit Society, the largest rabbit rescue organization in the U.S. Because many people think they’re short-lived, low maintenance, cage-bound animals, rabbits are seen as ‘starter pets,’ akin to hamsters or goldfish, perfect for kids. This misconception may help drive a glut of baby bunny sales ahead of Easter—and a subsequent rise in rabbit abandonments.”

Flag on the play? -
 Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM with your tips, comments or questions.

There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in the special election to replace now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo in his former Kansas House seat.

The good news is that soon-to-be Rep. Mike Estes, R, Kan. made it and will stand a good chance for re-election next year. The bad news is that for the second special election in a row a democratic nominee outperformed their previous cycle’s presidential candidate by about 20 points.

As you read and hear analysis of this race, bear in mind that something’s are easily over-interpreted. Scott Brown’s 2010 Massachusetts Senate win was indeed a harbinger but Republican successes in 2011’s special elections meant no great shakes for 2012.

That having been said, Republicans are right to be worried about the trend this year, especially with a high-stakes contest next week in suburban Atlanta for now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s former seat.

Political nerds care about these things because we are keenly interested in things like voter turnout, intensity and demographic patterns. For partisans, though, the consideration is about more than trend lines. It’s about recruitment and the current Congress’ agenda.

The tighter-than-it-should-have-been race in Kansas if paired with a GOP loss in Georgia would cause Republican members of Congress to recoil from ambitious plans laid before them and make it doubly hard for the party to recruit for next year.

NYT: “After Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson waited for much of the day, wondering whether he would get to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin, the two men sat down at the Kremlin late Wednesday afternoon in the first face-to-face meeting between the Russian leader and a top official in the Trump administration. Relations between the United States and Russia have grown so tense that it was unclear whether Mr. Putin would agree to see Mr. Tillerson... In the 24 hours before Mr. Tillerson landed, the White House accused Mr. Putin’s government of covering up evidence that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for sarin gas attacks on its own people, launched from a base where Russian troops are operating. Mr. Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated... ‘This reminds me very much of the events of 2003, when U.S. representatives in the Security Council showed alleged chemical weapons discovered in Iraq,’ Mr. Putin said…”

New evidence shows payments to Manafort from pro-Putin source ­
AP: “Last August, a handwritten ledger surfaced in Ukraine with dollar amounts and dates next to the name of Paul Manafort, who was then Donald Trump's campaign chairman. Ukrainian investigators called it evidence of off-the-books payments from a pro-Russian political party - and part of a larger pattern of corruption under the country's former president. … Now, financial records newly obtained by The Associated Press confirm that at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the ledger next to Manafort's name were actually received by his consulting firm in the United States.”

FBI got surveillance warrant on former Trump adviser with Kremlin ties - AP: “A newspaper report says the FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of Carter Page, an adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, because the government had reason to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent. The Washington Post, citing unnamed law enforcement and other U.S. officials, says the government surveillance application laid out the basis for believing that Page had knowingly engaged in intelligence activities on Russia's behalf. The newspaper said the application includes contacts Page had with a Russian intelligence operative in 2013.”

Trump stands by Comey - 
The Hill: “President Trump says he will not request FBI Director James Comey’s resignation, even though the FBI is investigating Trump's potential ties to Russia. ‘No, it’s not too late,’ Trump said Wednesday on Fox Business when asked about seeking Comey’s resignation. ‘I want to give everybody a good, fair chance. We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be interesting.’ The FBI director revealed last month that his agency is probing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s campaign.”

Reuters: “Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a peaceful resolution of rising tension on the Korean peninsula in a telephone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, as a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group steamed towards the region. Trump's call with Xi, just days after they met in the United States, came as an influential state-run Chinese newspaper warned that the Korean peninsula was the closest it has been to a ‘military clash’ since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006. The communication between the leaders underscores the increasing sense of urgency as tension escalates amid concern that reclusive North Korea could soon conduct a sixth nuclear test, or more missile launches, and Trump's threat of unilateral action to solve the problem.”

Fox News:
“White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer apologized late Tuesday after stating in his daily briefing that Adolf Hitler ‘didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.’ ‘Today I was trying to describe the attack that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad made on his own people using chemical weapons,’ Spicer told Fox News. ‘Frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, to which there is frankly no comparison. Obviously, that is not what I was intending to do. And I — especially during this week [Passover] — regret using that term and apologize and hope that we can focus on the president's decisive action that he took to make sure that we deal with the situation in Syria.’”

Trump reverses order instituting federal hiring freeze ­The Hill

Piece of cake: Trump raves to Maria Bartiromo about the dessert Chinese president was eating at the time of Syria strike news - People

First lady Melania Trump to be paid damages from libel case - Bloomberg

Katie Pavlich breaks down the new rules on illegal immigrants at the Justice Dept.  

Protestors at S.C. town hall turn Rep. Joe Wilson’s famous “you lie” against him NYT

Liberals keep up ObamaCare attack ads on GOP WaPo

In nod to Sanders voters, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign bill granting free tuition to some state colleges TIME

California elections chief looks for early 2020 presidential primary in Golden State Politico

“She was visibly, unflinchingly pissed off at us as a group.” – A senior aide to then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recalling a tense session in the wake of her March, 8 2016 defeat in the Michigan Primary, according to a new book about her failed campaign.  

“Drug companies get enough blame, so I thought I should mention that it was drug wholesalers who dumped the opioids into West Virginia, not drug companies. Wholesalers would have records of which pharmacy they send drugs into. If a prescription is paid in cash, manufacturers have no idea where the wholesalers delivered the drugs. If it’s electronically adjudicated via insurance, a manufacturer would know what zip code it went to, and which doctor wrote the Rx. Something tells me this was a cash only business.” –Norm Smith, Newtown, Pa. 

[Ed. note: Thank you for pointing out that distinction, Mr. Smith. I don’t pretend to know enough about the way drug wholesaling and retailing works to claim to understand. For readers who missed Tuesday’s audible about the Pulitzer Prize won by the Charleston [W. Va.] Gazette Mail’s Eric Eyre, the placement of blame in how hundreds of millions of these powerful, and powerfully addicting, drugs ended up in a state where the population is about the size of metropolitan Nashville is a huge issue. An issue that I suspect will be working through the criminal and civil courts for years to come. I appreciate you shedding light on the subject.] 

Share your color commentary: Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM and please make sure to include your name and hometown.

KCRA: “Cheryl Wassus is a retired state parole officer and part-time dog trainer living in Monroe, Michigan. Cheryl also spends a lot of her time volunteering her one-year-old licensed therapy Bernese mountain dog, Link … On Saturday, Cheryl and Link rolled into the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel in Novi, Michigan, in the hopes of raising some money for the charity and providing some cuddles for a convention called "Furrycon." … she was met with hundreds of people wearing full-blown animal costumes. She sent a few text messages to her son, who explained that she was at a convention for furries: A fetish community composed of people who enjoy dressing up in furry animal costumes, often involving a sexual component. ‘I've seen a lot of humanity in my line of work, but nothing like this,’ she said.”

“It would be, I think, a psychological success, victory for Trump, if he brought back the Congress, got the House to pass [TrumpCare]. But the chances of getting out of the Senate and back and passed are still very small.” – Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.