With the sort of swagger and bombast that he’d tried and largely failed to keep under wraps during his seven months as President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon cast himself as a cross between a B-movie ruffian and a spaghetti Western hero as he returned last Friday to Breitbart News.
“I’ve got my hands back on my weapons,” Bannon, a former producer-director of low-budget feature films and tendentious documentaries, crowed to The Weekly Standard shortly after Gen. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, sent him packing. (Trump confidant Roger Stone told The Daily Beast that Bannon’s claim that he agreed to resign on Aug. 7, as opposed to being summarily sacked after giving an extraordinarily indiscreet interview to the left-leaning American Prospect’s Bob Kuttner, “is a lie. It’s bullshit. I don’t think so, I know so.”)
But Bannon, speaking to The Weekly Standard’s Peter Boyer, accentuated the positive. “Someone said, ‘It’s Bannon the Barbarian.’ I am definitely going to crush the opposition. There’s no doubt. I built a fucking machine at Breitbart,” he claimed regarding the angry-populist nationalist/alt-right news site that was widely considered a key factor in Trump’s electoral victory last November.
Since the pugnacious Bannon’s ouster from the West Wing, the media-political complex has been rife with speculation that, with the financial backing of right-wing billionaire and Breitbart part-owner Robert Mercer, he’ll try to launch a television operation to compete with Fox News. (The cable network has been a frequent target of the populist website as a slavish champion of the Republican power-elite.)
The late Fox News founder Roger Ailes, after he was fired amid sexual harassment allegations, reportedly reached out to Bannon and suggested they start a rival network together.
But the word in conservative circles is that Mercer and his right-wing activist-daughter Rebekah, a close Bannon confidant, are wary of joining forces with the Trump-friendly Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of cable outlet WGN and what will total more than 230 local television stations after government regulators approve its planned $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media.
“That they were looking at Sinclair is totally legit, but apparently at some point the Mercers had concluded that the Sinclair people were too cheap to actually effectively go after Fox,” said a well-connected source in right-wing media.
“Steve’s not a TV person. He doesn’t like TV; he loves radio,” said Chris Ruddy, a pal of the president’s and the chief executive of right-leaning Newsmax, whose cable channel reaches around 35 million households. (Bannon is the former and likely future host of Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM Radio.) “He may entertain notions of building a TV channel, but that’s very challenging to do from scratch,” Ruddy added. “God bless him if he could do that with any speed.”
Former Breitbart editor at large Ben Shapiro is also among the skeptics. “Bannon had no other place to go except for Breitbart,” said Shapiro, a conservative radio and television pundit who opposed Trump during the campaign and quit the website early last year over Bannon’s lack of support for Breitbart political reporter Michelle Fields after she was manhandled by then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Bannon “is not going to be the head of a think tank. He’s not going to be a personality or a talk radio host. He’s not qualified for any of those things,” Shapiro said.
Instead, Shapiro predicted, “he will try to gain control over the movement he thinks he built—this nationalist-populist movement he thinks Trump rode the wave of. And what that means is he’ll be Trump’s quote-unquote conscience from the outside. You’ll see him go after all the people around Trump—and occasionally Trump himself. He’ll start off with Trump being ‘cucked’ by these people—and then it’ll turn into Trump selling out.”
Breitbart publicist-turned-antagonist Kurt Bardella, who also quit in the aftermath of the Michelle Fields episode, said Bannon’s exit from the White House “will be liberating” for the website, which will no longer be forced to calibrate its attacks on Bannon’s adversaries in the West Wing. At various times those have included presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, economic adviser Gary Cohn, and former chief of staff Reince Priebus.
For obvious reasons, a tough Breitbart story about any of Bannon’s White House colleagues would cause him enormous political pain internally; he was often accused of leaking dirt on his co-workers, and while he always denied it, few believed he didn’t speak to his former underlings about their coverage of the Trump administration.
In one instance—three weeks into the new administration—Bannon feverishly claimed to members of the press, including this reporter, that he was outraged by a hatchet job on Priebus bylined by Breitbart’s Washington political editor Matthew Boyle, Bannon’s personal protégé. He texted me that he “went ballistic” on Boyle when the Priebus takedown was published.
“Whenever Breitbart ran a negative story, the question people would ask themselves was, ‘Are they doing Bannon’s bidding?’” Bardella recalled. “Remember, [Breitbart] went hard after Jared Kushner—and then at one point they just stopped,” while Bannon toiled in the West Wing.
In another incident this past June, Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh, a Bannon favorite who enjoyed posting incendiary racist tweets (e.g., “British settlers built the USA. ‘Slaves’ built the country much as cows ‘built’ McDonald’s”), was promptly fired for tweeting: “There would be no deadly terror attacks in the U.K. if Muslims didn’t live there. #LondonBridge.”
“The only reason she was fired was because Steve was in the White House and that would have been a huge problem,” Bardella said. “They needed to get rid of a political headache for Steve.”
Republican political consultant and Daily Beast contributor Rick Wilson—a Never Trumper who during the campaign was one of Breitbart’s regular victims—agreed that the website had pulled some if its punches “for the sake of Bannon’s longevity in the White House.”
Wilson added: “They recognized that there were show stoppers in there. Donald Trump shows very little loyalty to any other human being, but he’s certainly defensive about his daughter.”
Breitbart may have regularly attacked White House “globalists” while Bannon continued to work there, but “naming names—I think that was a red line that Bannon couldn’t cross,” Wilson said.
Roger Stone, for his part, said: “I like Steve. I don’t think he was terribly effective on the inside. Perhaps he’ll be more effective on the outside.”
The Daily Beast contacted Bannon, who initially agreed to an interview, but at the appointed time became unavailable and unresponsive.
So far—on Day 7 of his reinstallation as Breitbart’s executive chairman after a year-long hiatus during which he also served as the mercurial Trump’s third and final campaign chief—predictions about the impact of his return to Breitbart are holding up, and the 63-year-old Bannon is beginning to make good on his vow to “crush the opposition.”
Chief among his enemies who are currently receiving the Bannon treatment are members of the Republican Party establishment and former White House colleagues who worked to thwart his influence with Trump, such as national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, economic adviser Cohn, and presidential relatives Ivanka Trump and Kushner (“Javanka,” as Bannon derisively called them in private). Even Kelly is receiving heat, to say nothing of frequent Breitbart—and presidential tweetstorm—targets Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.
“They’re probably going to go after everybody Bannon has a score to settle against,” said conservative radio host and activist-blogger Erick Erickson, a prominent Trump detractor during the campaign who knows what it feels like to be in Bannon’s crosshairs. “They’re upping the ante, willing to go after Ivanka and Jared in ways they may not have before… Honestly, as much as Trump’s Twitter feed is an insight into Trump’s mind, the headlines in Breitbart are a great indication of Steve Bannon’s mind.”
The top headlines on Breitbart’s home page Thursday included: “Reports: WH Globalists Choking Out Winning Populist Agenda,” “Trump Embarrassed by Lack of Progress on Border Wall,” and “Aides See Their Role as ‘Killing’ President’s ‘Crazy’ Ideas”—all referring to a story summarizing accounts in other media outlets about how the “West Wing Democrats” (Bannon’s mocking nickname for Cohn and “Javanka,” among others) are supposedly toiling to undermine the president’s populist-nationalist agenda, notably softening Trump’s hardline anti-immigration stance in order to win Democratic support in Congress for “tax cuts for the elite.”
“This situation leaves Trump… dependent on a few aides—such as immigration reformer Steve Miller—and his supporters at his rallies, to help fend off the insistent demands by his globalist aides for a back-room surrender of his presidential goals,” claims the story by Breitbart’s Neil Munro, who, as a White House correspondent for the Daily Caller in 2012, famously heckled President Obama during a Rose Garden speech on immigration policy.
Other headlines on the page: “DHS: Arizona Proves ‘Border Walls Work’”; “Judge Blames Trump for Illegal Alien’s Deadly Hit-And-Run With Marine”; “Santa Rosa Police Release Illegal Alien From Custody; Kills Girlfriend Two Weeks Later”; and “How Charlottesville Helped Drain the Swamp”—this last, for an article celebrating the abrupt dissolution of two of the president’s business advisory councils as dozens of corporate CEOs recoiled in horror at Trump’s apparent positing of a moral equivalency last week between neo-Nazis and white supremacists, on one side, and the counter-demonstrators on the other.
Headlines in the home page’s “Trending Now” section included “Karl Rove Celebrates Bannon’s Return to Breitbart News”—for a withering attack on President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, “the voice of the hapless Republican establishment in Washington”; “POTUS Tweets Meme of His Face ‘Eclipsing’ Obama’s”; and “Donald Trump Ridicules ‘Lying’ James Clapper…Hits McConnell, Ryan for Debt Ceiling ‘Mess.’”
But perhaps the most eye-popping item was an attack by one-time Trump adviser Robert Wasinger on conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch and their allies in Congress. “While Freedom Caucus members play up their populism for those in the cheap seats with a good deal of ‘anti-establishment’ posturing,” Wasinger wrote, ‘their agenda is at direct odds with the populist priorities that won the White House for Trump.”
The Freedom Caucus, it should be noted, was key to the Obamacare repeal bill passing the House of Representatives—a moment Trump celebrated as “unbelievable.”
So far—despite anguished coverage of the president’s Monday night announcement of unspecified U.S. troop increases in Afghanistan (with a story quoting social media Trumpkin Mike Cernovich’s sarcastic congratulations to “President McMaster” and “General Jared”)—Breitbart has avoided criticizing Bannon’s ex-boss personally, but instead has attributed Trump’s heresies to bad advice from manipulative “globalist” aides.
How long Trump will tolerate the attacks on family and staff—and how long Bannon can resist going after his former boss—remains a very much open question.
Erick Erickson told The Daily Beast: “Once they start going after Trump directly, you’ll know the romance is over.”