A former Breitbart News writer alleged the site was acting as an illegal influence operation for its Washington, D.C. landlord, an obscure Egyptian politician cited this week by a Capitol Hill media association that denied Breitbart press credentials.
Two sources with direct knowledge, including one former Breitbart writer, say a reporter for the pro-Trump news organization was behind a complaint to the Department of Justice implicating then-chairman Steve Bannon and Moustafa El-Gindy, an Egyptian businessman and former legislator and the owner of Breitbart’s Washington office.
Concerns about that office, nicknamed the Embassy, dogged the organization Monday as it unsuccessfully sought permanent congressional press credentials. Breitbart faced conflict-of-interest questions regarding Bannon’s new role as one of President Donald Trump’s top advisers, a probe into its investors and corporate structure, and questions about El-Gindy and his property.
He bought the Embassy in 2009 for $2.35 million. Breitbart is reported to be seeking new Washington office space, but its years-long relationship with El-Gindy is at the center of allegations that a staunchly “America-first” website illicitly promoted a foreign politician.
A complaint filed with the Justice Department’s National Security Division as the 2016 presidential campaign kicked into gear alleged that Breitbart was acting as a de facto foreign agent for El-Gindy by providing him with friendly coverage. The Daily Beast obtained a copy of the complaint through a Freedom of Information Act request.
El-Gindy, who was first elected to Egypt’s parliament in 2005, has found common ground with Breitbart in his staunch opposition to the country’s Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi, the former president backed by the Islamist group who was unseated in a 2013 uprising. El-Gindy later joined a political party backed by Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has received favorable Breitbart coverage since then.
El-Gindy, who did not respond to questions about his relationship with Breitbart, previously told Egyptian media that the Embassy provided a needed source of income after the collapse of his tourism business. “When [the revolution] happened, as we all know, tourism was hit hard, so I had to start renting out the property,” he said. “A real-estate agent has been taking care of its rental and I am not usually aware of who it is rented to. I am just a landlord.”
Despite pleading ignorance on his tenants, El-Gindy has given interviews to Breitbart directly. A handful of stories in the two years before the complaint with DOJ was filed refer to him in positive terms, focusing mostly on opposition to Egypt’s Islamist political elements—and ignoring more controversial positions, such as his outreach to the terrorist group Hamas and support for state censorship of blasphemy against Islam. One Breitbart story labeled him a “senior Egyptian statesman” who “has played a pivotal role in the revolutions against former President Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Even as Breitbart gave him favorable coverage, the DOJ complaint alleged that the media site was likely paying El-Gindy below-market rental rates on the site. If true, that would have amounted to an in-kind payment and, taken with friendly coverage of El-Gindy, could be seen as payments from a foreign government official in exchange for supportive media coverage.
It “appears [Breitbart] has been disseminating what FARA [the Foreign Agent Registration Act] would regard as propaganda on behalf of a foreign principal for financial benefit, and not merely as a financially unconnected news source,” alleged the complaint, which was sent to DOJ from a FedEx Office franchise in Arlington, Virginia, on July 2, 2015. It named both Breitbart generally and Bannon individually as alleged perpetrators.
The Justice Department’s National Security Division declined to comment on whether it took action on the complaint.
Other former Breitbart writers say the site’s relationship with El-Gindy wasn’t entirely clear. “Don’t know much about it unfortunately,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor, in an email. Shapiro never met him, he said, he “just saw the Egyptian flag in the window” of the building.
Controversy surrounding Breitbart’s relationship with El-Gindy and the office space it rents from him surfaced again Monday, as the organization sought press privileges that would allow it to more deeply cover the Trump White House.
During a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery on Monday morning, the committee denied Breitbart’s earlier request for permanent press credentials for Capitol Hill, stating that it needed “more answers” before considering the right-wing website’s request again. The committee discussed a request letter sent to it by Breitbart’s Larry Solov late Thursday that was said to show White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had severed ties with Breitbart as of November.
Beyond the letter, which presented a “Word.doc” masthead of Breitbart, a committee member pointed out that beyond “us trusting Larry” there was no other evidence that Bannon had in fact completely cut himself off from the site he previously ran.
The committee also expressed frustration that Breitbart may have “misled” or “lied” to them during an earlier conversation regarding the lease and zoning of the “Breitbart Embassy” near the Capitol in Washington where the website had previously based its operations. Zoning rules for the area do not allow for commercial leases, meaning that only businesses such as those run by, say, independent piano teachers giving lessons would technically be permitted to be run out of the “Embassy.”
Washington D.C. tax records confirm the property is zoned for residential use. They also show that the Embassy has been receiving a homestead property-tax deduction, which is only available for properties used as their owners’ primary residences, not for commercial buildings.
A Breitbart spokesman did not respond to questions about the FARA complaint and the embassy more generally, including its apparent flouting of DC zoning rules.
Breitbart’s former head Bannon, a staunch nationalist and anti-immigration crusader who now serves as President Donald Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, did not respond to requests for comment, either.
Recent reports indicate that Breitbart will seek to leave behind the embassy and the controversies it has entailed as it expands its influence in President Donald Trump’s Washington. A Friday report from USA Today said the organization is seeking more traditional downtown DC office space.