President Trump’s chief strategist, former Breitbart News chairman Stephen K. Bannon, was in feverish damage control mode Wednesday over a report in the angry-populist/nationalist news site trashing White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
“Story is totally absurd,” Bannon texted The Daily Beast, adding that he “went ballistic” on Tuesday in a phone call to Breitbart’s Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle, shortly after Boyle’s story appeared, the day after Trump fired his national security adviser, retired general Michael Flynn.
Bannon’s alleged phone call, in which he reportedly gave Boyle a talking-to, was first revealed Wednesday by Axios correspondent Jonathan Swan, who wrote: “Far from Bannon orchestrating the leaks—as some have speculated—Trump’s chief strategist was furious… Bannon got Boyle on the phone and gave the Washington editor ‘both barrels,’ according to a source familiar with the conversation.”
Thus Bannon’s furious attempt to put daylight between himself and Boyle, whom Bannon hired from The Daily Caller in 2013. “Matt was our No. 1 draft pick,” Bannon told The Daily Beast shortly after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. “He was a young guy, and had a fighting spirit and aggressiveness which was perfect for us—and which you can’t coach.”
Because of Boyle’s personal closeness to Bannon, as well as to senior White House aide Stephen Miller and Bannon deputy Julia Hahn— who until recently worked under Boyle as a Breitbart political reporter— the story prompted immediate speculation that it had been secretly coordinated with Bannon or his minions in the White House.
Adding to the speculation is Boyle’s well-documented penchant for bizarre machinations and conspiracy theories. Last May during the presidential campaign, when Boyle and Bannon were conspicuous Trump cheerleaders, he concocted a fake open letter—to be signed, apparently, by leftwing activists—protesting the employment of former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at the Huffington Post and demanding that she be removed.
The bogus letter—reminiscent of the Nixon reelection campaign’s forged “Canuck Letter”, a dirty trick that insulted voters of French-Canadian descent and damaged Democratic frontrunner Edmund Muskie’s presidential effort in the 1972 New Hampshire Primary—was uncovered by Yahoo News correspondent Hunter Walker.
Fields had resigned from Breitbart in a blaze of embarrassing publicity for the site after Bannon and Boyle didn’t support her claim—quickly confirmed by video evidence—that then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had manhandled her at a primary night event in Florida.
“Fields leading your Trump coverage is a joke, clearly intended to troll the Republicans and their new standard-bearer,” read the fake letter, sent as an email from Boyle’s personal account, with the subject line “OFF RECORD—YOU DID NOT GET FROM ME,” and titled
“An Open Letter To The Huffington Post From The Progressive Community.”
“We believe it is imperative that, as the leading progressive news outlet with impeccable credibility, that the Huffington Post up its game,” the fake letter continued. “You need to take this seriously, and stop treating Trump as an entertainment joke that you are trolling. Do you really think Michelle Fields will do serious investigative reporting on Donald Trump’s tax returns? What about on his decades of dealings with mafia mobsters or on his scores of bad real estate deals? Do you think Ms. Fields can handle aggressive investigations into Trump University or reporting on Donald Trump’s demagoguery of women, immigrants, Muslims and African Americans?”
When contacted by Yahoo News about the letter, Boyle laughed and said only, “I use my personal email a lot,” but otherwise declined to comment. Fields didn’t respond to messages from The Daily Beast. Boyle didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Priebus, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a creature of the GOP establishment that Breitbart frequently attacks, is often depicted as Bannon’s arch rival in stories about Trump White House palace intrigue—an impression the two men have aggressively sought to rebut, most recently in a joint interview in New York magazine.
The Breitbart hit piece, headlined “As Flynn Resigns, Priebus Future In Doubt As Trump Allies Circulate List of Alternate Chief of Staff Candidates,” anonymously quoted “multiple sources close to President Trump with internal knowledge of White House operations.”
“Absurd,” Bannon stressed in a second text, when asked his reaction to the Boyle/Bannon/Breitbart conspiracy theory gaining currency inside the Beltway. “Reince is doing an incredible job; he is a great partner.”
The normally pugnacious Bannon, who seldom if ever goes on the defensive, had given a similar denial to the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray in an effort to quash the speculation about his motives.
But former Breitbart publicist Kurt Bardella, who worked closely with Bannon at the news site for two years before quitting last year in protest of his allegedly toxic leadership style and his treatment of Fields, told The Daily Beast that it’s unlikely that the former Breitbart boss wouldn’t have known in advance about Boyle’s anti-Priebus story.
Bardella said Bannon’s public denials—and the report of his phone call to Boyle—are intended to demonstrate “that Steve was unhappy, and he couldn’t have been a source for a story that he was unhappy with Boyle for writing. Come on.”
Bardella added: “It’s all a charade in my opinion.”