How Steve Bannon helped bring a nationalist, populist agenda to the White House

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we saw earlier, President Trump's top advisers presented a picture of unity at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Maryland today.

Mr. Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, dismissed the notion of any clashing ideologies within the president's inner circle.

To discuss, we are joined by former NPR CEO Ken Stern. He profiled Steve Bannon for Vanity Fair. And Phil Rucker, he's White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.

And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

I'm going to start with you, Ken Stern.

Fill out — since you have written about him, fill out the picture of who Steve Bannon is and especially what does he believe?

KEN STERN, Former CEO, NPR: So, Steve — just little bit of background about Steve Bannon.

He was a Goldman Sachs banker, got wealthy doing media deals. Got into conservative media doing documentaries and met Andrew Breitbart, became sort of friend and counsel to him. And then, when Andrew died, he took over Breitbart.

And he transformed Breitbart. When Andrew Breitbart ran it, it was a site that made a lot of noise, attacked a lot of people in what he — what Andrew Breitbart called the complex, the Democratic Hollywood activists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

KEN STERN: And then — but Steve Bannon turned it into a — really a political movement, a populist, nationalist political movement that I think Donald Trump eventually rode to power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Phil Rucker, as somebody who is covering the White House, now, how much of that nationalist, populist movement has Steve Bannon brought to the White House?

PHILIP RUCKER, The Washington Post: All of it. You can point to many of the acts that President Trump has taken in his first month in office, and it's that agenda, it's that ideology.

And it's not so much that Bannon is a puppeteer here. I think it's more that Bannon and Trump are soul mates ideologically. They both have the same views, the same beliefs about this sort of populism and nationalism and upending the kind of world institutions and structures that we have become accustomed to in the post-World War II era. And you see it on domestic policy, on trade, on economic moves, and also certainly in the foreign policy world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Stern, so spell it out for us.

Today, we heard Steve Bannon use the term economic nationalism. He talked at one point about the deconstruction of the administrative state. What is he saying he wants to do?

KEN STERN: I think he wants to change the neo-liberal world order away from free trade, away from open borders.

It's America first. It is a philosophy built on the notion that virtue lies with the people, and the establishment has stabbed the people in the back. And he wants to change that world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying, yes, Phil Rucker.

PHILIP RUCKER: That's exactly right.

And it's interesting the language that Bannon used. These are not terms that we often hear in the political mainstream. And, in fact, some of the words like globalist, corporatist are terms you hear on the political left, like the Bernie Sanders campaign.

But this is a really different kind of movement here. It's not traditional Republicanism. It's nationalism, it's populism, it's changing the structures and the way things work politically and economically in the world and here at home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phil Rucker, staying with you, they did, as we were reporting earlier, try to paint a portrait of unity today.

PHILIP RUCKER: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You would think that Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon were the dearest friends from way back.

What has it really been like inside the White House with them?

PHILIP RUCKER: Well, it's changed a little bit.

I think early on in the White House, there were these competing power structures that President Trump set up on purpose, Bannon as chief strategist, Reince Priebus as chief of staff. And we were getting reports of some tension, not only between them, but among their allies within the administration.

But that seems to have cooled off a bit. There was a point a couple of weeks in where President Trump told all of his aides in the Oval Office, look, Reince Priebus is in charge, he is the chief of staff, the process runs through him.

And I think Bannon has adapted to that. And Bannon is more the ideas guy, the strategist, the person kind of coming up with the grand plan, whereas Reince Priebus is the one implementing it and orchestrating the process and dealing with kind of the hour-to-hour, day-by-day activities of the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Stern, so based on what you know about Steve Bannon, how do you see him operating in this White House? Because, as we heard Phil Rucker say, he and the president see eye to eye on a lot.

So, how does he make his influence felt?

KEN STERN: Well, I tend to think — so, I agree with Phil.

I tend to think of Bannon as the chief ideologist of the White House, the ideas guy, the guy who is a political philosopher. You even heard it today, the way they talked. Bannon talked about deconstructing the administrative state. Priebus talked about two-for-one exchanges of regulations.

Bannon is the big idea guy. Priebus is the tactician.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But does that mean that Reince Priebus is going to be prepared to go along with all this agenda that Steve Bannon espouses?

KEN STERN: I think this is very strange bedfellows. You know what they say about politics.

But if you went back to Breitbart, and during the early part of the election, before Bannon joined the campaign, public enemy number one for Breitbart is the Republican establishment. They ran Paul — they supported Paul Nehlen against Speaker Ryan.

They don't like people — the things that Reince Priebus stands for. So, it's a very odd collection. And they may — they seem genuinely to get along. They may be just good actors. But there has got to be long-term tension between the establishment and the anti-establishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your sense of that, Phil Rucker?

You are saying that they seem to be working together better in the last few weeks, but what is the — is there a fear, is there a concern about Bannon having too much influence over the president? How does the rest of the White House staff read him?

PHILIP RUCKER: You know, there is some concern about that, but people have to remember, it's not just Bannon.

I mean, Bannon is espousing Trump's views. So if you're going to war with Bannon, you're going to war with the president, too. And I think the more traditional Republicans in the White House, even if they have been schooled to think differently about these issues ideologically, and even if they personally might feel something different, this is Trump's belief.

It's his agenda. It's his world view. It's the things that he is trying to implement as president. And Bannon is guiding him and leading him in that direction. But the other staffers have to kind of go along, or get lost, if you will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that sounds like the makings of a tense situation, Ken Stern.

KEN STERN: It does. It really does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it's certainly something that has all our attention right now.

Ken Stern, Phil Rucker, we thank you both.

PHILIP RUCKER: Thank you.

KEN STERN: Thank you, Judy.

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