Sink or Float
The Far Right’s Witch Hunt Inside the Trump White House
Right-wing trolls are claiming they ousted a top Trump staffer last week and, whether or not that is true, they feel emboldened to do it again.
The post-Steve Bannon Breitbart, prolific far-right internet troll Chuck Johnson, and a host of online conservative activists are out for blood—and they have their sights set on the “traitors” still dwelling in, and they believe leaking from, the Trump White House.
This week, they’d tell you they claimed their first scalp—whether or not it’s actually true.
On Thursday afternoon, Politico reported that White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, an ally of chief of staff Reince Priebus, was departing the two-month-old Trump administration. Walsh is set to serve as an adviser to the Republican National Committee and the struggling, turmoil-laden pro-Trump nonprofit America First Policies.
That same afternoon, Bannon, Priebus, and senior adviser Jared Kushner—with Walsh at their side, sitting silently for the most part, according to press in the room—gathered a small huddle of journalists in Priebus’s office to heap praise on Walsh, and to spin reporters on her departure.
“Katie’s a vital link that pulls things together and makes things happen,” Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, told invited members of the press. Walsh could not be reached for comment on this story.
Despite the White House’s insistence that she totally wasn’t fired, speculation immediately swirled around Walsh’s exit. She had been a recent favorite target of far-right media outlets, which largely view her as a fifth column, and a habitual backstabber, in Trump’s ranks. To them, she is little more than a “Reince loyalist” and a friend to New York Times reporters—two of the worst slurs in Trumpian media and nationalist cliques.
“Two sources with direct knowledge of these matters—one inside the White House and one outside—told Breitbart News on Thursday that it was Walsh’s suspected leaking that led to her removal,” Breitbart’s Washington political editor, Matt Boyle, wrote on Friday. The day before, Boyle ran a piece on Walsh’s departure quoting “one ex-Trump aide” who said that “Reince Priebus is now a dead man walking. The firing of Katie Walsh was a sign of desperation.”
Breitbart, of course, is the right-wing website, formerly run by Bannon, that serves as one of Trump’s staunchest outside enforcers and advocates. The site barely tries to hide how much it wants Priebus jettisoned from Trump’s inner circle.
The usual suspects in conservative media and online activism followed Breitbart’s lead, cheering Walsh’s demise. Infowars conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, Trump-supporting personalities Mike Cernovich (who branded Walsh as only “one of the WH leakers”) and Jack Posobiec, and The Gateway Pundit all delighted in the news. Citing “White House sources,” Breitbart even gave some credit for Walsh’s alleged firing to a “story first reported on Charles Johnson’s Got News [website] weeks ago.”
Johnson is more than happy to accept the credit.
“You might have noticed that Katie Walsh was fired today—a month after I broke the story that she was leaking to the NYT,” gloated Johnson, a right-wing researcher and notorious troll, in a post on his website over the weekend.
Johnson also claims to have been integral to the process that ultimately led to Walsh’s alleged ouster. He told The Daily Beast in an interview that he had fed information to the White House showing she had been leaking sensitive information to The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Reached on Sunday afternoon, Johnson said he would be revealing the names of two additional White House leakers “once I get back from the zoo.”
Johnson has a history of publishing unverified or inaccurate information. In 2014, he posted a photo of a woman he claimed to be the University of Virginia student at the center of a discredited Rolling Stone story about an alleged fraternity gang rape. In fact Johnson had identified the wrong woman. The year before, in a story that failed to disclose his prior work for an anti-Cory Booker political group, Johnson inaccurately reported that Booker did not live in Newark, New Jersey, as the senator claimed.
Though Johnson would not name his White House contact and provided no evidence to back up the ostensible anti-Walsh collaboration, he insists that the White House orchestrated a sting operation to out Walsh as a source of leaks to major media organizations and that he was enlisted as an integral part of that effort.
He says the White House began feeding Walsh false information and then tasked Johnson with crawling the political web to document where that information turned up. The effort petered out, Johnson recalled, and he said he had not recently been in touch with the White House officials behind it.
Multiple Trump administration officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity to talk freely acknowledge that though Walsh was viewed more suspiciously by a number of her colleagues (several of whom saw her as, however justified, a “leaky” staffer), Johnson’s story sounds far-fetched.
“These guys keep trying to find [the] traitors and are living out some political fan fiction,” one Trump official with direct knowledge of Walsh’s activities and departure told The Daily Beast of Johnson and his ilk.
During the home stretch of the 2016 campaign, Johnson did his best to directly aid the Trump campaign. Still, senior veterans of the campaign and Trump presidential transition, as well as current White House officials, laugh off Johnson’s claims of direct collaboration as “ridiculous” and “nonsense,” saying “[he’s] living in his own world.” In October, Trump’s then campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told The Daily Beast that she had not spoken to Johnson.
Johnson, who used to write often for Bannon’s Breitbart, brushed off White House officials’ denials. “Of course they have to say that,” he said, acknowledging that few in the West Wing want to be seen publicly working with him.
Unfortunately for some members of the Trump administration, Breitbart, Johnson, and the dedicated armada of pro-Trump trolls and journalists aren’t intending to stop at Walsh. They have a list of other White House “traitors” who have been their pet obsessions in the Trump era—and they think they can help take them down.
They see Walsh’s departure—her betrayals and subsequent firing, they insist—as the first step in marginalizing the influence of White House chief of staff Priebus and staffers close to him, many of whom, like Walsh, moved to the White House with Priebus from the Republican National Committee. Bannon and Priebus have publicly denied there is any tension or in-fighting between them or their staffs, though the two men represent different, often conflicting wings of Trump’s political orbit. Bannon has previously been critical of Priebus, and in late 2014 wrote privately that Republican leadership were “all cunts.”
Late last week, Breitbart warned about “serious levels of concern” over Walsh’s potential replacements and appeared to settle on a next target of the purity and loyalty campaign.
“One [possible successor] is another ex-Republican National Committee (RNC) Reince Priebus loyalist—Sean Cairncross—who a White House senior aide described to Breitbart News as absolutely being a leaker from inside the White House, just like Walsh,” Boyle wrote on Friday, citing unnamed sources. “Cairncross, who served alongside Priebus in the senior-most levels of the RNC, has been systemically leaking information designed to help Priebus and hurt Priebus’s rivals inside the White House, a senior official tells Breitbart News. Senior administration officials have been aware of Cairncross’ leaking behavior, too, and have been watching him closely.”
Johnson, for his part, says he is keeping his eye on another creature of the establishment: White House personnel director John DeStefano, a former senior RNC staffer and top aide to former House speaker John Boehner.
In a Fox News column last month, conservative writer John Fund faulted DeStefano and his staff for the glacial pace of hiring in Trump’s administration. Johnson, linking to Fund’s column, cited DeStefano’s personnel oversight as “one of the reasons you haven’t gotten the government you voted for.”
Johnson hopes DeStefano will be the next casualty in a wholesale remaking of White House personnel. He sees Walsh’s exit as the first step in that process, he said.
As of press time, DeStefano and Cairncross had not responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
“Now that Trump fired Katie Walsh, will he finally get someone in who supports his agenda and wants to Make America Great Again?” Johnson wondered.