Conservative flame-thrower gets key White House post
Washington — Stephen Bannon, a leading force of the far-right, a flame-throwing media mogul and professional provocateur, a man who made a career out of roiling the establishment from the outside, just landed squarely on the inside.
Donald Trump’s pick for chief strategist and senior counselor signals the president-elect has no intention of abandoning his brash, outsider instincts as he puts together his new government. Trump didn’t give Bannon the top White House job — that went to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Still, Trump made clear Sunday that a man many credit with righting the businessman’s campaign — and one others accuse of amplifying a bigoted fringe — would have a plum position in the West Wing.
Bannon joined Trump’s election team as chief executive late in the campaign, following the departure of Trump’s second campaign team in August. He quickly became a member of Trump’s inner circle, frequently traveling with the candidate and working to re-shape his message to emphasize Trump’s populist and outsider appeal.
Bannon came from Breitbart News, an unabashedly pro-Trump outlet that had declared war on GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, with whom Trump will have to work to pass his agenda if Ryan retains his role.
But other elements of Bannon’s tenure are getting more attention. Under his leadership, the site pushed a nationalist, anti-establishment agenda and became one of the leading outlets of the so-called alt-right — a movement often associated with far-right efforts to preserve “white identity,” oppose multiculturalism and defend “Western values.”
The site specializes in button-pushing, traffic-trolling headlines, including one that called conservative commentator Bill Kristol a “Republican spoiler, renegade Jew.” Others asked, “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” and “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.”
Priebus on Monday said “That wasn’t his writing,” referring to Bannon, although he did not specify which, if any were Bannon’s work. In the months Priebus has known Bannon, the media mogul “has exhibited none of those qualities,” the Republican chairman told NBC’s “Today.”
“Here is a guy who is very, very smart, very temperate, and together we’ve been able to manage a lot of the decision making in regard to the campaign along with Kellyanne (Conway),” he added. “And it’s worked very, very well.”
Bannon has been personally accused of prejudice. His ex-wife said in court papers obtained by The Associated Press that Bannon made anti-Semitic remarks when the two battled over sending their daughters to private school nearly a decade ago. In a sworn court declaration following their divorce, Mary Louise Piccard said her ex-husband had objected to sending their twin daughters to an elite Los Angeles academy because he “didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”
Alexandra Preate, a spokeswoman for Bannon, denied he’d ever said such things.
Bannon also faced domestic violence charges following an altercation the pair had on New Year’s Day 1996 following a spat over money. He was charged in 1996 with misdemeanor witness intimidation, domestic violence with traumatic injury and battery. The charges were dropped after Piccard didn’t show up at trial.
A Harvard MBA, Bannon began his career as a Goldman Sachs investment banker. He later capitalized on an entertainment industry deal that left him with a share of “Seinfeld” royalties, founded the Government Accountability Institute to ferret out “crony capitalism” and government corruption, and created a number of his own films, including paeans to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the tea party movement and Ronald Reagan.
Breitbart’s founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, once admiringly described Bannon as the Leni Riefenstahl of the tea party movement, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek profile. Riefenstahl was a filmmaker vilified after World War II for her propaganda pieces about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
He was hired by Breitbart News after Breitbart died suddenly in 2012.
Unafraid to play favorites, the website early last year prominently featured positive stories about Trump rival Ted Cruz. But as Trump gained momentum later in the year, the site began pumping out pro-Trump stories — and remained a chief proponent of Trump’s candidacy through the end of the race.
Given his background and reputation, many had expected Bannon’s arrival in August to signal a new, caustic phase for the Trump campaign. There were moments. Trump’s pre-debate news conference with the women who’d accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault seemed to be signature Bannon. But largely, Trump appeared more comfortable and willing to stick to the teleprompter under the guidance of Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, who was promoted to the role of campaign manager when Bannon joined the team.
Ultimately, Bannon’s biggest influence appeared to be pushing Trump to adopt more populist rhetoric and paint rival Hillary Clinton as part of a globalist system bent on oppressing the country’s working people.
Trump’s campaign said Bannon will work “as equal partners” with Priebus. The arrangement suggests the president-elect is putting a premium on loyalty and maintaining much of his existing inner circle as he begins to fill thousands of government positions over the coming weeks.
“I want to thank President-elect Trump for the opportunity to work with Reince in driving the agenda of the Trump administration,” Bannon said in a statement.