Steve Bannon is nervous.
After days of a constant barrage of negative stories about his ties to the alt-right fringe, the newly appointed White House senior strategist has been scrambling to shore up support on Capitol Hill fiercely to keep a hold on his job.
Bannon has spent the past few days making calls to congressional offices since news broke on Sunday of his new White House appointment, quickly trying to identify potential allies and forge relationships, multiple sources (who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about Bannon) told The Daily Beast.
“For the past few days, he’s been making calls to members looking for meetings [with GOP] leadership, Freedom Caucus members,” a Republican congressional staffer familiar with these conversations told The Daily Beast. “Bannon wants to meet with as many people as possible as quickly as possible, which makes sense. It’s just that usually someone coming into his kind of job doesn’t have the kind of ‘Dr. Evil’ reputation that he does.”
The pressure to oust Bannon continued anew on Wednesday, with 169 Democrats banding together to urge Trump to ditch Bannon (PDF), arguing that his appointment “will not allow the country to heal and come together as one.”
The reaction to Bannon’s appointment as his chief strategist was swift, due largely to the fact that his website Breitbart is a haven for white-nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic content, and that he was once charged with domestic violence. (Bannon pleaded not guilty and the charges were subsequently dropped due to witness unavailability.)
The fallout over his appointment has led Bannon, former chairman of the staunchly pro-Trump, alt-right Breitbart and ex-CEO of the Trump campaign, to grow increasingly concerned that more Republicans will begin calling, privately and publicly, for him to be removed from his powerful position in the incoming Trump administration.
“He’s worried that there is room for him to get big-footed before things even get off the ground—by people who like Reince [Priebus], but think that [Steve] is a horror show with far too much baggage,” a Trump team source told The Daily Beast. “So, he’s trying to see who’s going to be in his corner if this all blows up in his face… Trust me, he’s not going to forget the people who weren’t.
“He’s gearing up for a battle,” the source continued.
Bannon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Bannon, according to three sources, is seeking to build stronger relationships with influential Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
“I will tell you, don’t prejudge,” McCarthy previously told reporters about Bannon, stating that he had spoken to him on the phone Sunday to get acquainted.
Bannon’s allies—while few—are members who have been more willing to buck Republican Party leadership, such as members of the House Freedom Caucus.
“We are delighted that he is where he is and feel that any intimation that he is anything but pro-Israel is in error,” said caucus member Rep. Trent Franks. “I think he’s an all-around good guy. He’s smart and he’s proactive and so I’m very pleased at his direction.”
But making new friends may pose something of a difficulty, given how much Bannon and his Breitbart crew have gleefully trashed Republican leaders and the GOP “establishment” over the years.
Not too long ago, Bannon was calling Republican Party leadership—which included folks like McCarthy and Scalise—a bunch of “cunts.” That was in December 2014.
And for years, Bannon has wanted to destroy House Speaker Paul Ryan’s reputation and political career, deeming him “the enemy” and a conservative sellout.
During President Obama’s second term, Bannon described himself as a “Leninist”—insofar as he wanted to “destroy the state… bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Now that he is officially the president-elect’s top strategist, those remarks sound awkward to say the least.
Unlike the appointment of Priebus as chief of staff, which was widely praised among Republicans, Bannon’s appointment was met largely with blank stares—a symptom of his scorched-earth anti-establishment strategy over the past few years.
“I don’t know him” was a common refrain throughout the halls of Congress—and in fact, all across Washington, D.C.—when Republican figures were asked about their opinions of Bannon’s new White House gig.
“I’ve never met him, I wouldn’t know him if he walked through the door,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday. Ryan said much the same thing on Sunday—“I’ve never met the guy”—and repeatedly dodged questions about Bannon during a press conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning.
Some removed themselves even further from the situation, saying not only that they haven’t met the guy, but also that they hadn’t read much about him.
“I’m going to have to read a little more on Bannon… there has just been so much going on this week from different directions that I haven’t started vetting the Trump picks,” Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais—who is absolutely no stranger to tabloid-ready scandal—told The Daily Beast.
Even after the Anti-Defamation League condemned Bannon’s appointment, citing his stewardship of his alt-right website, which the ADL described as “a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists,” Jewish Republicans stayed uncritically deferential.
“I have never met or spoken to Steve Bannon and at the RJC we look forward to speaking with him soon, getting to know him, and hearing his answers to some of the questions that have arisen,” Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks told The Daily Beast, in response to questions about whether the group had concerns with Bannon’s background.
The fact that so many Republicans in Washington are resorting to these sorts of deflections and excuses reflects the work that Bannon has left to do in coming months to build bridges with the Republican coalition and establishment that he so explicitly despises.
Bannon does have at least one man on his side during all this controversy and internal strife: President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s unwillingness to let Bannon simply return to Breitbart, post-election, is a sign that it will be difficult to unseat the Trump White House’s top strategist.
“Bannon is Trump’s guy—it seems that that is right now non-negotiable for him,” a Trump aide said.
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff