“Fake News: Media, Democrats Distort Remarks to Target Jeff Sessions,” blared the headline on Breitbart’s lead story Thursday as a growing number of Republicans—including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, California Rep. Darrell Issa, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz—called on the freshly minted attorney general, accused of prevaricating during his confirmation hearing about his meetings with Vladimir Putin’s ambassador, to recuse himself from any investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign contacts with Russians who sought to meddle in last year’s presidential election.
One would expect no less from the privately held Breitbart, the right-wing nationalist website credited with helping Trump into the Oval Office and largely owned by the publicity-shy, multibillionaire Mercer family.
The Mercers’ aggressive and expensive political activism—both through multimillion-dollar direct donations to conservative candidates and causes as well as largesse from a family foundation—could thwart the site’s application to obtain permanent press credentials on Capitol Hill and thus be recognized as an independent media outlet.
Breitbart’s relationship with its former executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, now ensconced in the White House as the president’s chief strategist, is also at issue in the site’s quest for Washington-sanctioned legitimacy.
“We have been looking at Mr. Bannon’s role and we also asked for the financial breakdown and ownership structure,” said Bloomberg News’s Billy House, chairman of five-member board of the Senate Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents, which decides if an applicant meets the requirements for a permanent credential. “Whether Mr. Bannon is still involved is very high up on our list of inquiries, because our own rules state that the applicant must show to the satisfaction of the board that it is independent of any agency of the U.S. government.”
Without a credential, Breitbart’s employees cannot observe House and Senate proceedings from the press galleries, sit in the press section at committee hearings, freely roam the Capitol Building to buttonhole senators, enter the Speaker’s Lobby to interview House members, or attend arguments at the Supreme Court.
But to obtain a credential, a media outlet “must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. government, or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or any federal government department, and will not do so while a member of the Daily Press Galleries,” according to the gallery rules.
“Applicants’ publications must be editorially independent of any institution, foundation, or interest group that lobbies the federal government, or that is not principally a general news organization,” the rules continue. “Failure to provide information to the Standing Committee for this determination, or misrepresenting information, can result in the denial or revocation of credentials.”
Arguably, the Mercers’ wide-ranging political activities—which include lavishing tens of millions of foundation dollars on right-wing groups and tens of millions more on super PACs and candidates—might cross the line.
During a meeting with the gallery’s standing committee board last Friday, Breitbart Chief Executive Larry Solov—a Los Angeles attorney and childhood friend of the site’s late founder, Andrew Breitbart—reluctantly acknowledged what has already been widely reported: that the Mercers have an ownership stake.
Under questioning, Solov declined to identify which Mercer family member or members are owners of record, although Breitbart insiders say it is likely Rebekah Mercer, the 42-year-old middle daughter of right-wing hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer; she is an intimate Bannon confidante who was instrumental in persuading Trump to bring him on last summer as the campaign’s CEO.
According to a former Breitbart staffer, Bannon was the key factor in persuading Rebekah to divert her support and cash from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to Trump during the Republican primaries—a moment when Breitbart also changed allegiances, fawning over the reality-TV star and trashing Cruz at every opportunity.
Bannon, said the staffer, was Rebekah’s “Rasputin,” and a frequent participant in her political phone calls.
She is also close to Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who has worked on behalf of the Mercers’ many political interests and was reportedly hired as Trump’s campaign manager at Rebekah’s urging.
Solov, whose request to meet with the press gallery board in private was denied as working reporters covered Friday’s on-the-record session, declined to specify the percentage of the Mercer stake in Breitbart. However, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in 2011, the Mercers paid $10 million for nearly 50 percent of the company.
Since the election, however, the Mercers’ financial commitment to Breitbart, which is widely believed to be losing money, may have waned; according to a fellow at a prominent think tank with close ties to conservative media, people close to Breitbart’s management have been floating the idea of selling the site and gauging interest among possible buyers.
“It was an unofficial discussion a couple of months ago,” said this person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I heard that Bannon was ready to let it go. They had really achieved their goal to get into government and affect policy. The problem with Breitbart is that Bannon no longer controlled the editorial content but he was still going to be seen as responsible for everything that was written there, and people would think he’s directing it.”
Breitbart Editor in Chief Alexander Marlow didn’t respond to requests for comment.
During his meeting with the standing committee, Solov also revealed that he, too, is a part-owner, and said that Susie Breitbart, widow of the founder who died of a heart attack five years ago at age 43, owns the largest stake in the company.
Concerning Bannon’s relationship with the site after taking a leave of absence to join the Trump campaign, Solov told the board he resigned as executive chairman by phone. Asked to provide a dated and signed resignation letter from Bannon on official stationery, Solov balked, making the astonishing claim that he didn’t know how to get in touch with the presidential adviser.
Bannon’s private cellphone number is widely available to journalists, including to his protégé, Matthew Boyle, Breitbart’s Washington political editor and swooning Trump fan. The soft-spoken Solov, say Brietbart insiders, was apparently intimidated by the blustery, foul-mouthed Bannon, who seemed to treat him as an underling.
“He said he got a call at some time saying Bannon was no longer on leave and has left Breitbart, but has provided us with no paperwork to date confirming that,” Bloomberg’s House told The Daily Beast. “If Mr. Bannon is accessible to other people, the question then becomes why can’t Mr. Solov and Breitbart get ahold of him to determine if he still works in their operation?”
Neither Bannon nor Solov responded to messages from The Daily Beast seeking comment.