Over the span of several days this month, the pro-Trump, nationalist website Breitbart distanced itself from Paul Nehlen after the Wisconsin businessman-turned-conservative-candidate went on anti-Semitic and white-power rants.
Nehlen had been a columnist for Breitbart and his page there was stripped of its content and their relationship severed. But beyond his writing, he had also been a vehicle for Breitbart’s staff to torment House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Nehlen challenged Ryan in the GOP primary in 2016, only to lose by a massive margin. He is running again in 2018. And, until recently, had at least the implicit backing of Breitbart.
But while the website may have dropped the candidate, it hasn’t dropped his electoral cause. Breitbart staffers told The Daily Beast that they remain committed to going after Ryan even if it won’t be done via a primary challenge in 2018.
“We always understood that Nehlen was not going to win,” said a senior Breitbart staffer. “The whole point [of supporting him in ‘16] was it forced a trade policy debate and Ryan flipped on TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal]. It was a huge deal. Now, is that the only way we can go after the Speaker? No. There is a number of things we can do.”
Breitbart’s crusade against Ryan dates back years. The site and its CEO, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, have long considered the Speaker a “globalist” squish and an enemy of their brand of conservatism. But in recent weeks and months, Ryan has fallen down the target sheet. It was his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who primarily came under Breitbart and Bannon’s fire, especially after lawmakers in that chamber failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. McConnell and Breitbart found themselves on opposite sides of increasingly bitter primary fights as well, most notably and recently in Alabama where the senator backed his colleague Luther Strange (R-AL) and the website championed the far-right upstart—and general election loser—Roy Moore.
As those feuds played out, Ryan proved to be increasingly in lock step with Trump’s agenda. And with whispers turning into murmurs turning into reports that the Speaker was considering retirement, his utility as a punching bag for the nationalist right has become diminished, one source close to Bannon acknowledged.
Inside Breitbart and Bannon’s political orbit, however, there is little appetite to let Ryan coast into 2018 or a new career. Staffers there say they plan to wage war on him should he allow a deal to codify legal protections for DREAMers—undocumented children—pass through the House.
“If he pushes DACA,” one Bannon associated said, referencing the program to protect DREAMers, “it will cause a complete civil war within the Republican Party.”
Bannon and Breitbart also have plans in the new year to make a concerted push for a broad-based and pricey infrastructure investment program that has been championed by Trump. Associates say that they view Ryan as non-receptive to the idea and too rigidly committed to entitlement reform, which some in the Bannon orbit see as a political loser before the 2018 midterms.
Asked if it was an “editorial objective” to see Ryan removed as Speaker, the senior Breitbart staffer replied: “I’m loathe to describe anything as an editorial objective.”
“But,” the staffer added, “would it be something that is a positive for a movement? Sure, depending on what takes its place. I can make a case that [John] Boehner would have been better for economic nationalism than Ryan and maybe it was a mistake for the movement to take out Boehner. Then again, maybe it wasn’t.”
A spokesman for the Speaker declined to comment.
But in its efforts to keep Ryan in line, Breitbart now has one fewer tool at its disposal. Nehlen was never projected to give the Speaker a competitive primary. But his presence in the race ensured that he’d have at least nominal media attention. And his platform at Breitbart allowed the site to publish political hits on Ryan under the guise of them being “columns.”
Nehlan has not indicated that he is dropping his bid, though his campaign treasurer quit on Thursday and was replaced by Nehlen himself. But his banishment from Breitbart is a stain on both him and the website itself, which already had to cut ties with another staffer, Milo Yiannopoulos, who was caught by BuzzFeed clearing his content with white nationalist and neo-Nazis.
Breitbart had been widely criticized for not moving to exile Nehlen sooner. The candidate long espoused vehemently anti-Muslim viewpoints in addition to branding himself as a proud white-nationalist. His latest rantings weren’t revelatory.
Breitbart officials said they weren’t playing close attention to every rant Nehlen was making online. According to internal Breitbart communications reviewed by The Daily Beast, there was discussion starting mid-December among Bannon and his close associates and senior staff about how exactly to deal with Nehlen in the wake of his appearance on the far-right, pro-white supremacy podcast “Fash the Nation” and his fascist-leaning missives online, including the use of the hashtag "#ItsOkayToBeWhite.”
“That’s some Nazi shit,” a separate senior Breitbart staffer told The Daily Beast after listening to the “Fash the Nation” episode. (Nehlen had appeared on the podcast in 2016 as well)
Some in Bannon’s inner circle even kicked around the idea of Breitbart putting out a written statement or press release earlier this month denouncing Nehlen, or Nazis in general. However, Bannon and others soon agreed that it was best to take a quieter approach in distancing themselves from the Wisconsin Republican.
When CNN reporter Oliver Darcy began making inquiries—after Nehlen tweeted out that he was reading a book that blamed Jews for anti-Semitism—and CNN host Jake Tapper labeled Nehlen a “favorite” of Breitbart News, the quiet approach was shelved.
Bannon ordered his team to “bury Nehlen” according to the mid-December internal communications. He would also call Nehlen a “gadfly” and “another piece of marginalia” who needed to be “gotten rid of.”
At least in public statements, Nehlen doesn’t appear personally hurt by Bannon-world’s disavowals. He told CNN that he “will continue to stand strong against anti-American sentiment, however it manifests” and decried the “coordinated attack by globalists from both parties.”
Nehlen did not return a request for comment.