Donald Trump recently named Steve Bannon to be a White House chief strategist and senior counselor to the president. It’s a position that could give Bannon, the former chief of the alt-right Breitbart media outlet, access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets.
There’s just one problem: He might not be able to pass the background check.
The basic form required to get a security clearance, known as an SF86, asks about one’s arrest record, foreign contacts, association with organizations dedicated to the use of violence, and association with groups that advocate use of force to discourage individuals from exercising their constitutional rights.
All of those questions could be seriously complicated for Bannon, who’s been celebrated by American white nationalists, feted by Europe’s ultra-right, and charged with choking his wife.
It’s a problem without much, if any, precedent in the White House’s modern history. There’s rarely been someone with so many questionable ties appointed to such a lofty position. In fact, security clearance experts tell The Daily Beast, Bannon’s background would create serious problems for any other government employee—if he weren’t so close to the president.
But unlike the nation’s soldiers and spies, the alt-right Breitbart ringleader will get special treatment. Bannon has an ace-in-the-hole: the backing of the president-elect of the United States, who could intervene to demand Bannon get clearance anyway. It’s a move that could come at the expense of his relationship with lawmakers, the FBI, and the intelligence community.
“He is, let’s say, a colorful figure that might raise concerns in an ordinary investigation,” said Steven Aftergood, a director at the Federation of American Scientists. “In another context, there would be no opportunity for [an] override… It would never come to the attention of a senior official if he were just a regular employee.”
Bannon has a long history of red flags. He was accused of grabbing his then-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, by “the throat and arm” during a heated argument that led to a domestic-violence charge against him in the mid-1990s, according to court documents relating to their divorce. Police reportedly responded to the argument on New Year’s Day, 1996.
In a declaration during their divorce proceedings, Piccard claimed her husband told her “that if I wasn’t in town they couldn’t serve me and I wouldn’t have to go to court” to face the abuse charges. Bannon ended up pleading not guilty, and the domestic-violence charges were dropped due to witness unavailability.
Further, he may have been paid illegally during Trump’s campaign by pro-Trump billionaires—which prompted a complaint from a campaign watchdog group. That’s something which could be looked at during the FBI investigation.
Bannon has also sought to forge alliances with Europe’s nationalist, anti-immigrant, and far-right parties—and to provide a home for those group’s American sympathizers.
Bannon also once described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state... bring everything crashing own, and destroy all of today’s establishment” in order to reach tea party populist goals.
In August, white nationalist groups immediately rejoiced upon news of Bannon’s hiring as the Trump campaign’s chief executive. That’s because under his leadership, Breitbart had given favorable coverage to their alt-right movement.
Under Bannon’s stewardship, Breitbart has praised racist websites like VDARE and American Renaissance as an “eclectic mix of renegades.” American Renaissance is headed by a man who backs voluntary racial segregation and says African Americans are genetically predisposed to be criminals.
Bannon brags about his international Breitbart operation as “the platform” for America’s racist, anti-Semitic, pro-Trump alt-right, and has for years been thinking globally, with an affinity for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Party for Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, and the National Front in France—all of which have earned glowing coverage on the pages of Breitbart.
The National Front, for example, has been blamed for anti-Muslim violence in France, resulting in the ransacking of a Muslim prayer space. The head of UKIP, Nigel Farage, has darkly warned that violence is the “next step” if immigration to that country is not controlled.
Bannon’s Breitbart, which currently has operations in London and Jerusalem, has had plans for a while now to expand to France and Germany with new bureaus to help aggressively promote the populist-nationalist politicians and groups there. After the presidential election, Marion Le Pen, a leader of France’s far-right movement, said she was eager to work with Bannon.
“He has long wanted to work with all of those parties, but that was only in promoting them with Breitbart,” a source close to Bannon told The Daily Beast. “Now he has the power of the White House to do it.”
Bannon spent seven years in the navy as an officer at the beginning of his career, where undoubtedly he would have gone through some security screenings. But this will be far more comprehensive.
In order to get top secret clearance, Bannon would need to go through a thorough investigation by the FBI, and be cleared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He also would receive a polygraph test, and investigators would explore his allegiance to the United States, any foreign contacts he might have, and the history of his personal conduct.
“He’s going to go through a vetting, a picking apart of his life, unlike he’s done in decades. They’re going to learn everything that he’s been doing ever since he took over the Breitbart empire. It’s going to be invasive, it’s going to be personal, and it’s all going to be uncomfortable,” said Bradley Moss, a lawyer specializing in national security issues.
The FBI will explore whether Bannon has a history of questionable judgment, deceitfulness, unreliability, lack of candor, or other signals that he should not be trusted with information that could damage the nation’s security if published.
Bannon isn’t the only one who will need to get a security clearance—the Trump transition team has looked into getting clearances for his adult children and son-in-law Jared Kushner, despite the fact that nepotism is prohibited by federal law.
Even if there are serious concerns, Trump can ultimately reverse any negative finding by the FBI—but not without a cost.
“If the president gets a recommendation that is negative, he’ll have to think long and hard about overruling it, because it’s not something to do lightly,” said John Berry, another lawyer specializing in security clearances. “We’ll have to see how far the president is willing to go in terms of granting information to people with security concerns.”
There are already hints of political consequences on the horizon. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called on the FBI and ODNI to investigate Bannon the same way any other government employee would be investigated—without fear or favor.
“They should go through the ordinary background checks… and not give him any special treatment. And if they find that any other candidate with his background would be disqualified, then he should be disqualified,” Schiff told The Daily Beast.
If the FBI investigation into his history and personal associations brings up red flags, it will cause a conundrum for the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence communities. Even before Bannon, there have been doubts within the intelligence community as to whether Trump will take their advice on a range of issues.
“Given that the president-elect disregarded what the intelligence community must have been telling him about Russia’s role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee… there are already profound concerns [over whether] he will accept the views of the intelligence community when it differs from his own view of things,” Schiff said. “Were he to move forward with someone that the intelligence community found to be disqualified on the basis of his background checks, that would be another cause for grave concern.”
Trump is already receiving pressure to ditch Bannon. The Anti-Defamation League condemned the Trump adviser as having presided “over the premier website of the Alt-Right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists,” and Sen. Harry Reid denounced him Tuesday as a “champion of white supremacy.”
If red flags emerge during the investigation into Bannon’s past, Trump will need to make a decision on whether it is worth it to stick with the head of Breitbart.
“He’d be expending a lot of political capital, and considerable political backlash if the FBI moves to deny it,” Moss said. “Whether it’s worth it to Donald Trump is ultimately something only he will know.”
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng