HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to a man often at the center of controversy in the Trump White House, whose outsized influence is often discussed, yet he is rarely heard from.
Our John Yang is here to help fill in the picture.
JOHN YANG: Hari, earlier today, I spoke with a journalist who got an unexpected phone call from Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s embattled chief strategist.
Robert Kuttner is the co-founder and co-editor of “The American Prospect,” a liberal magazine. He’s also a professor of social policy at Brandeis University. We were also joined by Joshua Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of the bestselling book “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.”
I began by asking Kuttner about how his conversation with Bannon came about.
ROBERT KUTTNER, The American Prospect: Well, I got an e-mail from someone at the White House who says that Mr. Bannon would like me to come into the White House and meet with him.
So, I double-checked the e-mail address, which looked legit, and I called the guy, and he seemed legit. And I said, look, I’m on vacation, but this is kind of a fast-moving story, so I would be happy to speak with him by phone, if he would like to.
And what had happened was, he had read a column I had written the day before basically making the point that, because we have been so passive in taking on illegal Chinese trade practices, that Beijing now has a huge amount of leverage over us, where we want them to help us with North Korea, but the price for that is we have got to fold our hand in terms of taking a hard line with them on trade.
So, Bannon apparently read that and felt he had a soul mate, and didn’t take the precaution of making clear whether we were on background or on the record, and called me up and sounded as if we were soul mates and best friends.
And it was like I was part of a private strategy session with Stephen Bannon, which was really quite bizarre. And about two or three minutes in, I said to myself, oh, wow, he is not putting this off the record. And I’m certainly not going to mention it if he doesn’t mention it.
And, of course, the ground rules are that when a government official calls you and doesn’t say whether it’s off the record or on the record, the default setting is that it’s on the record.
And so, 25 minutes later, I have this astonishing interview, which I recorded.
JOHN YANG: And this was the first time you had ever talked to him?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Absolutely.
And he made it sound like he’d been reading my stuff for years and thought it was great, you know, the usual kind of flattery stuff.
JOHN YANG: Josh Green, this is Mr. Kuttner’s first time talking to Steve Bannon.
You have been talking to him on and off since 2011, I think. How does this ring true to you? Does this ring true to you?
JOSHUA GREEN, Bloomberg Businessweek: Absolutely.
In fact, my introduction to Steve Bannon was much the same as Bob Kuttner’s. I had written an article about Sarah Palin. And, all of a sudden, one day, out of the blue, I get a phone call from a staffer, saying, I represent a guy named Steve Bannon, who at the time was a conservative filmmaker infatuated with Sarah Palin.
He said, Mr. Bannon read your latest article and he would really like to get together and talk with you. In this case, it was at a movie screening for Bannon’s film.
And I met him. And he’s a very interesting, smart, charismatic guy who had a distinct brand of politics that I thought was interesting and worth writing about. And so I got to know him and basically have been interviewing him ever since.
JOHN YANG: Bob, you mentioned two bits that he talked about.
He talked about contradicting the president’s strategy on North Korea. He said, “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no military solution here. They got us.”
What was your reaction when you heard that?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, I thought he was right on the merits, but the first thing I noticed was that this was not exactly the administration’s view, certainly not Donald Trump’s view.
So, I said to myself, huh, he’s being rather incautious and he shows no felt need to defend his president, and he’s just speaking his mind. And it certainly is not the president’s view.
JOHN YANG: He also talked about what he called ethno-nationalism. He called them losers. “It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much and we have got to help crush it, help crush it more. These guys are a collection of clowns.”
ROBERT KUTTNER: That was completely disingenuous, because, of course, he, as much as anybody else in America, is responsible for assembling this collection of clowns as a political force.
And people like Bannon and like Trump, they say what they need to say, and if they contradict themselves today relative to what they said yesterday, well, that’s how you do it.
And if he’s trying to ingratiate himself with somebody who’s an editor of a liberal magazine, “The American Prospect,” he’s going to say what he needs to say to try and persuade me that he’s not such a bad guy.
But you have to take that with a ton of salt. And I think it’s the usual dog-whistle stuff, where the alt-right is not going to think that Steve Bannon somehow has had a deathbed conversion and he now thinks they’re bad guys.
JOHN YANG: Josh, what do you think was going on here when he said those things?
JOSHUA GREEN: I think that he was trying to impress a credentialed journalist and somebody he admires.
He and I — Bannon and I had similar conversations in the research for my book. And I asked him, because he’s often charged with anti-Semitism and white nationalism. I said, well, if you don’t believe this stuff, why is it that you make common cause with these guys?
And his answer was that, while the types of you see marching in Charlottesville are — he called them freaks and goobers to me, he called them clowns to Bob — were individually ridiculous people, collectively, they represented a political force that he thought he could script into his larger America-first nationalism, into Trumpian politics, and use them, essentially manipulate them as tools to carry out his political goals.
JOHN YANG: Bob, he ended the conversation with you by saying that he was — wanted to see you at the White House after Labor Day to continue discussion of China and trade. Do you think that’s going to happen, Bob?
ROBERT KUTTNER: You know, I think, as long as Donald Trump is doubling down on the alliance with the far right, Bannon’s job may be safe, because he needs Bannon to guide him through that strategy.
So, I am certainly not going to predict whether Bannon’s job is safe, but I think the point is, a lot of other people in the White House may be furious at Bannon, but there’s only one person who counts. And that’s Donald Trump.
JOSHUA GREEN: I agree.
And if you listen to what Donald Trump had said in the wake of the Charlottesville attack, it has been precisely the sort of thing that Bannon says and believes, even though it’s something that is galling to Republican elected officials, to ordinary Americans, to many advisers within Trump’s own White House who are leaking to reporters their dismay and disgust, but don’t have the courage to come out and say it publicly or do what they ought to do and resign from their position in the White House, if they don’t agree with what Donald Trump is saying.
JOHN YANG: Joshua Green, Robert Kuttner, you both have fascinating insights into this guy Steve Bannon.
Thank you very much for joining us.
JOSHUA GREEN: Thank you.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Thank you.