The FRONTLINE Interview: Kurt Bardella
Kurt Bardella is a former spokesman for Breitbart News and the founder and CEO of the Washington communications firm Endeavor Strategies.
Once a top press aide to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Bardella joined Breitbart in October 2013, where he worked closely with Steve Bannon to raise the site’s profile. Bardella says Bannon wanted the site to be “the most dominant voice in the Republican Party space.” But he later broke with Bannon, accusing him of turning Breitbart into “the propaganda vehicle for the Trump campaign.” In March 2016 , Bardella left Breitbart.
“I just realized, I don’t want to be a part of this anymore, I am uncomfortable with what I think I’m being put in a position to have to do.”
In this interview, Bardella speaks at length about working with Bannon, how he transformed Breitbart into a major political site, why Bannon was drawn to Trump, and the relationship between Bannon and the president.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on March 28, 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let me ask you about Steve Bannon as an editor. Where were you in the firmament when Bannon comes into Breitbart, and what was your impression of him?
I actually met Steve for the first time at the so-called Breitbart Embassy. This would have been in the fall of 2013. At the time, they were looking at trying to transition Breitbart into the center-right version of the Huffington Post, and to be more substantive, to be more impactful on public policy on Capitol Hill. The idea of my role was to be their media consultant and kind of be the bridge that connects their content to policymakers, decision makers and the rest of the political press corps here in Washington.
And, you know, I meet Steve for the first time. He brings me in, and we just kind of had this conversation. Right off the bat, Steve is a very engaging, charismatic person. I found him to be actually very charming. He had a clear sense of vision and objective, which is refreshing. A lot of people don’t always know what they want or really how to achieve it, and Steve had clarity on all those fronts.
What did he want?
He wanted Breitbart to be the most dominant voice in the Republican Party space. And when you looked at how media was congregating at that time, there really was space for a center-right platform to emerge and be that dominant presence. Everything had been kind of splintered between — maybe it was the National Review or Weekly Standard or Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, there wasn’t a go-to, “This is where the chronicling of what’s happening on the center right is happening.”
… Breitbart certainly had that kind of potential in their approach being more, I think, tech-savvy, savvy to how audiences consume information in this ever-changing, tweet-a-second type of society that we live in. They understood that and I thought had the potential to really tap into that.
… When you said Breitbart Embassy, what do you mean?
They, at that point in time, were operating out of a townhouse on Capitol Hill, which they called the Breitbart Embassy.
And Steve’s aspect, what did he dress like? What did he act like?
Steve is a very casual person. This is not a suit-and-tie guy. It’s funny, now seeing him every day, in his current role, wearing a suit and tie, that’s not really his style. He’s very shorts and flip-flops, and I think that’s what I saw him in almost universally most of the time, were shorts and kind of a collar shirt and flip-flops. He was just very casual. And his demeanor is most of the time very relaxed, very matter-of-fact, not someone who is rigid about boundaries or professionalism, where you have to conduct yourself a certain way. He’s very much just kind of take it as you are, and take him as he is.
So it’s a website looking for a real niche in the middle of a space that’s kind of empty. The year is 2013. He is an older guy. How does he fit into what you’re describing as a youthful pursuit?
Well, I think his natural distaste for the establishment and the status quo, wanting to be a disrupter, puts him immediately on the opposite side of those existing platforms that operate under the traditional way. You know, whether it’s The Washington Post and what they call the mainstream media, he is diametrically opposed to that. So the only frontier left where you can really gain ground is online. And I think that just through his own approach and ideology that that’s kind of where he fell on things and saw the best opportunity for him to achieve his objectives.
Could you tell whether he was just a pragmatist and this was a world he was in, or did he have a big idea? Did he have real politics? Was he the real thing, or was he an entrepreneur looking for a new product?
In the beginning, I kind of saw him more as more entrepreneurial, honestly, just again, someone who saw an existing space where Breitbart could grow organically and kind of create its own footprint that was unique. Now, this is at a time, too, where Breitbart was searching for a different identity. You know, their founder and namesake, Andrew, of course, had died, leaving, I think, very much the future of what their identity would be in question. And he died very unexpectedly. He died young. So I think when that happens, everyone is left to wonder, well, what’s going to happen next? And I think a lot of people here in Washington, myself included, thought that Breitbart wouldn’t be around much longer once Andrew passed.
So I think Steve was being very entrepreneurial at the time, trying to find a space that made sense that they can occupy that was unique.
… There were guys coming through there who would eventually become household names — Steve Miller, Jeff Sessions. Who was Miller, and how did Miller enter the orbit of Steve Bannon’s Breitbart?
Miller, at the time, was the communications director for Sen. Jeff Sessions. … Jeff Sessions has been one of the most vocal advocates of strong border security, no amnesty. That’s been a key of his platform for a very long time, so there were natural allies in Sen. Sessions and Breitbart. And in doing a lot and covering what Sen. Sessions was saying or doing, the Breitbart nexus engaged almost daily with Stephen Miller. So as the campaign primary side started kind of progressing, and people started looking at immigration policy as an issue, it was, again, another natural alignment that you would have Stephen Miller kind of being that go-between emissary between the Breitbart world and Sen. Sessions. And ultimately, when Sessions, of course, became de facto surrogate of Donald Trump, that circle grew. …
I’ve read that there were get-togethers where Miller and staff members from Breitbart, and even Sessions sometimes, and even Bannon sometimes, would sit and plot strategy, immigration strategy. Is that a true story?
I think there was no question that there was a constant dialogue and interaction between Sessions and Bannon. Bannon actually recently revealed that he had tried to encourage Sessions to run for president, primarily on the issue of immigration and trade, not because he thought that Sessions would win, [but] because they thought that they could move that issue to the forefront of the conversation and that, in Bannon’s words, Sessions would be a hero by doing so.
It was very clear that … Steve and Breitbart, with Stephen Miller … were playing a very hands-on role in trying to advise Sen. Sessions.
This is more than source and reporter; this is collaborators.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. You go from the traditional relationship of “We’re going to report your side of the story and promote you” to “We are now collaborating on strategy; we are now personally vested in the outcome of what you’re doing.” And that’s a different line. That’s not journalism.
It goes to this issue that’s fascinating. You’ve been around the Hill long enough to know that after the Republican “autopsy” in 2012, there is this kind of imperative for center and moderate Republicans to go along with the idea of “We’ve got to get women in; we’ve got to get minorities in; we’ve absolutely got to do something about immigration reform.”
There is, on the other side, the people you’re talking about, certainly Jeff Sessions, Miller, and eventually Breitbart. What’s that collaboration about? Why are they so determined to be in opposition to [John] Boehner, [Eric] Cantor, [Paul] Ryan, [Kevin] McCarthy, all the usual suspects in the moderate to slightly conservative Republican Party?
I think in some ways it’s survival. It’s survival of an old-guard mentality that the demographics in this country have surpassed in many ways. I think in some ways it’s just this deep-rooted cynicism about the role that immigrants play in our society and the contributions that they make to our country; this real, abnormal fear that old white people seem to have, that somehow something is being taken from them [by] immigrants and minorities, and that this must be stopped, and this is bad for America, and this is anti-American, and the playing upon people’s fears that if you’re on hard times, and maybe you don’t have a job, or you’re not getting paid what you think you should be, it’s because of minorities and immigrants.
It is, I think, a segment of our society that is growing smaller as time has gone on. But the difference today versus five, 10 years ago is that for the first time, there are public platforms where people who think this way can sound off every day and feed off of one another and create more noise. That didn’t exist 10 years ago. There wasn’t Twitter. There wasn’t online Breitbart. I mean, you look at the comments section of Breitbart’s stories on immigration and anything that touches on minorities, I mean, it reads like you’ve walked into a hate club gathering of some kind.
I think that one of the real changes of the venom and velocity of it is because these platforms now exist and they didn’t before. They were able to harbor these feelings, but in a much more quiet, less public way, and that’s not the case anymore.
… This position on immigration, is it part of some plan? Is it something he really believes in, or is this a good business move?
I think it’s a little bit of all those things, honestly. I think that there is a certain amount of self-interest involved in terms of your audience is composed of a lot of people who feel that immigrants are the problem with this country, so thereby, there’s a need to provide them with content to keep them engaged with your platform. I think that from a worldview standpoint, clearly, Steve and Sen. Sessions — now I should say Attorney General Sessions and Stephen Miller believe that those words need to be taken into policy and have since. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words, and the actions that they have taken since being in office tells you that what they’ve talked about this whole time before that was more than just lip service, was more than just trying to build a good business that was profitable off the backs of racists. They instead are really putting in the policies that speak to those people. And on some level, you have to believe that there is some deep-rooted ideology driving that at this point.
One of the attacks against Breitbart, that there were sections of the site that were [about] black crime, that there was a [section] tracking immigrant crime and outbreaks — what was that about? What were they appealing to there?
I think that they were appealing to the segment of the population that are racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, really the worst among us, creating this congregating space every day, where people from that worldview can go and rally around one another to find content that validates their worldview. I think that’s what they were building, ultimately.
Did it represent Bannon?
You know, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t. When you were at the top of the decision-making process, when you are the be-all-end-all decider about what goes up on that site and what doesn’t, when you allow that to happen, you’re endorsing it. So I don’t know how you can’t affix that to the person at the top of the food chain when that’s going on.
Now, someone might say: “Look, we’re just a forum for all kinds of people and all kinds of things and all kinds of arguments and ideas. You know, if there was some Nazi stuff, it wasn’t endorsing the Nazi stuff; it’s freedom of speech. We let people come and argue and talk about it.” What do you say?
I would say that the problem with that argument is, I don’t see the side of the page on Breitbart that talks about why climate change is a threat to our society. I don’t see the page talking about the contributions that immigrants make to our economy and to our country. I don’t see the part of the site talking about why equality and gay marriage should be the law of the land. I don’t see that other perspective. Alex can say that, “Well, we’re just putting up content; we’re not picking sides,” but when you only put one side of the story up, you are picking sides, and you are culpable in that.
… So Julia Hahn and [Sebastian] Gorka and others come rolling in. Tell me about Julia.
I first met Julia when she was the executive producer for Laura Ingraham’s talk radio program. She eventually went on to be Dave Brat’s communications director, Brat being famous for, of course, defeating then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in — probably the shocker of that election, really, was Cantor losing and Brat winning. That didn’t last very long. So she ended up at Breitbart as someone who — you know, Steve worked with Julia a lot through Laura Ingraham, you know, obviously Breitbart being a place that promotes a lot of Laura Ingraham’s commentary and statements. And you remember, I think it was the 2014 election cycle, there were a lot of congressional races going on where Breitbart and Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin kind of teamed up and endorsed different candidates who were challenging incumbent Republican senators. They would do events together and collaborate a lot, and I know that it was really then that the relationship with Julia began to take shape, because she was kind of that point person for Laura.
She is, which more power to her on that front. I wasn’t surprised at all when Steve brought her with him to the White House. It seemed that he had taken a very hands-on interest in Julia and trying to shape her. And obviously, making the decision to bring her into Breitbart in the first place was Steve’s decision. And when you look at the kind of content that Julia would cover at Breitbart, it very much aligned with Steve’s agenda. She more famously wrote the story in October, accusing Speaker Paul Ryan of being with Hillary Clinton. That’s right out of a Steve Bannon playbook.
In what sense?
Well, Steve has been one of the most vocal opponents of the GOP leadership, whether it was John Boehner or Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan. And you look at Breitbart’s coverage of Speaker Ryan, it’s been merciless. It’s been brutal from day one. They are always the very first to talk about why his speakership might be in jeopardy and, you know, is there a coup against him, and why he’s a weak and ineffectual leader. The fact that they published just a week before the health care vote this audio from October of Speaker Ryan talking about not being with Trump, that tells you a lot about what their agenda is.
… The idea of this, hitting the leadership, was really to knock the establishment down, I take it.
Right. I mean, they looked at the leadership and really, for a long time, then-Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor as the portrait of what was wrong, in their minds, with conventional Washington, and what was wrong with the Republican Party.
… How successful did they become.
I think they became massively successful. When you have a story at Breitbart go up that moves opinions on Capitol Hill, and either gives pause to the leadership about maybe considering a certain proposal or fans the flame of potential conflict going on between the Freedom Caucus side of the Republican Caucus and the leadership, there is a lot of power there. And Breitbart went from being a platform that was dismissed by everybody as not credible, not legitimate, who cares what they write, to people very much caring, to people across the entire spectrum of the Republican Party calling Breitbart and either pushing back on a story or trying to explain a story. I mean, just the level of engagement from Capitol Hill policymakers and leadership aides skyrocketed during this time.
Then, knowing that we were going to have, obviously, a very contested Republican primary, with 15 different candidates running, the center-right audience, that primary audience is crucial in that situation, and Breitbart was seen as one of the gateways to that audience. So they became very impactful. It wasn’t an accident that during the primary, from Marco Rubio to Scott Walker to obviously Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, they would run op-eds at Breitbart. A lot of them would advertise at Breitbart. They certainly recognized that there was a massive sphere of influence at their disposal, and they, in part, are as much of a contribution to the growth of Breitbart as anything else, giving them that legitimacy.
Could you tell who Bannon favored?
Yes. And the answer is, it shifted the entire campaign. When you go back to the beginning of the campaign, Breitbart and Bannon were very high on Rand Paul. They were all about Rand Paul, you know, tons of stories about how great Rand Paul was. Then it shifted and moved to — at one point Ben Carson was the flavor of the moment, and Bannon was dealing directly with Ben Carson’s right-hand guy, Armstrong Williams. Bannon once told me that Armstrong told him that he would be the chief of staff to President Ben Carson should that have happened. Then it went to Ted Cruz and then, ultimately, to Donald Trump.
Going back even before that, Bannon, I feel like, has been someone who’s been looking for a figurehead to attach himself to for a very long time. Back before this election, it was Sarah Palin. … He has talked about, recently, how he wanted to have her run in this election cycle. … When Palin kind of started on the decline, he moved on and developed those relationships with Rand Paul and really Ted Cruz. Then it was Ben Carson. Now it was Donald Trump. But he’s been looking for a long time, I think, for that figurehead.
What’s he looking for?
I think when you go back to the 2014 election cycle, where Breitbart took very aggressive roles in supporting candidates who were challenging Republican incumbents, whether it was Matt Bevin in Kentucky against Mitch McConnell, Joe Carr in Tennessee against Lamar Alexander, Milton Wolf against Pat Robertson, Kansas, they took a very, very vocal role. And all those races they lost.
Part of the reason, I think, why they lost was the Tea Party movement lacked unity, structure, a cohesive message and a figurehead. Any political movement that has any chance of lasting and growing has a public-facing fixture, someone that you identify that movement with. The Tea Party didn’t really have that. You had candidates who were elected under the Tea Party platform, but on any given day, you could say that, oh, it was Ted Cruz; it was Marco Rubio; it was Mike Lee in Utah. There wasn’t one unifying figure.
I think that’s what he was looking for, someone that could represent that ideology. And it’s not a Democrat-Republican ideology; it’s an establishment/anti-establishment ideology — but someone who could capture all of that in one persona, who could be their champion.
Did he have a big idea for that candidate? Was there something he was worried about in the world?
I think it was more of the idea of strength versus weak. You know, he perceived President Obama to be weak, and he felt that the Republican Party, under the current leadership at the time, also was weak, that they weren’t strong enough to stand up to President Obama, to the global threats confronting our country, to the moderate voices who want amnesty for illegal immigrants. It’s kind of all of that in one package. But it really came down to an organization of strength of force against weakness and inaction.
… And eventually, it’s Trump. He meets Trump.
Right. Well, remember, Trump dipped his toe, if you will, into the political world at one point in the 2012 cycle there, and of course became the face of the whole birther issue. It was very clear that Trump had an interest in being more than just an outside figure, potentially dabbling in politics. He very much seemed to want both the legitimacy that comes with public office, and I think that credibility for his own ego.
And what would Breitbart and Bannon have given Donald Trump? What was he looking for? And what might he get from them?
Well, from them, I think, again, you get that direct pipeline to a very specific audience within the Republican Party that plays an outsized role in the primary process, particularly. And for those readers, for people who will read Breitbart every day, you know, that is their go-to source of information. That is where their whole construct of what’s happening in the world is shaped. They’re not going to believe anything else outside of what’s written at Breitbart. And when you have that kind of pipeline to a very devout group of people, and it’s almost like a cult, really, when you have that pipeline to those type of people, who if Breitbart says, “You’re up, and this person’s down,” you know, that could be a very powerful starting point when you’re trying to build a base of support.
So Donald Trump, you could see, if you looked back at what you’ve described as Bannon’s need for somebody who’s strong, who could represent the strength that he wanted in the Republican Party, Trump might fit that bill.
Right. I mean, they are perfect partners in a lot of ways, because I think Steve spoke in a way that Trump could really gravitate towards. They both speak, again, use of force and strength, never backing down. They speak the same language, and I think Trump really gravitated towards it. And I think Trump intuitively knew that he would never get the acceptance of the “mainstream” status quo Republican Party, so if he was going to do this, he had to go somewhere else. He wasn’t going to be embraced by the speaker or by the majority leader. That was never going to happen, so the only place left for him to turn, really, is that outer fringe.
So Miller goes to work for him in January of 2016, and in February or so, Sessions endorses him. The power of that combination?
Well, I think there were a lot of folks who immediately knew that Sessions was going to be, if not the vice presidential nominee, certainly a high-profile Cabinet position; that they had linked their political fortunes together and forged a very potent alliance. In Sessions, I think Trump found someone who would be a very helpful ally, a sitting senator, chairman of a major congressional committee who could espouse and share the same worldview that they were playing to at that time. That was a mutually beneficial alliance.
He got to be the man at the intersection of all of that, choreographing all of that, being one of the most trusted advisers of Sessions, and then, you know, obviously having the relationship with Bannon, and then becoming that voice for Trump. He was really perfectly situated to come in. And when you look at those centers of power between Trump, Sessions and Bannon, that is the epicenter of so much of what’s going to happen in this country and then in their agenda. …
For a candidate who doesn’t read in depth, Breitbart headlines were probably a way to go to school on what people in his potential voting bloc cared about.
Well, I mean, he has tweeted out stories from Breitbart. He’s made it very clear that he is a daily Breitbart reader. The home page of Breitbart.com is as much the president’s daily intelligence briefing as anything else.
What does that mean?
It’s terrifying. It means that he is uninformed, that he is being fed misinformation, that he has a shallow grasp on any issue that he’s trying to learn anything about. And it’s incredibly dangerous for this country.
If [Breitbart editor-in-chief] Alex Marlow were here, he might say: “Wait a minute. We’re the real journalism. We’re the guys who are reporting this stuff that the media elites won’t report, because it’s not in their best interest to do it.”
I have no doubt that that’s what Alex would say, as well he should, given his role there. I think, at the end of the day, facts are facts. And when you look at what’s been going on in this country, what’s been going on with the White House’s constant refusal to just — you know, when you look at the White House’s embrace of making up facts and attacking those who try to question them, there’s just going to be a natural tension there. Alex and Breitbart have staked their names and reputations on one side of that. I guess history will tell, in the long run, who is right or who is wrong. But at the end of the day, we’re seeing every day what happens when Donald Trump wakes up, reads something or sees something that isn’t the whole truth, and puts it out publicly with the full weight and force of the presidency behind it. Again, the whole wiretapping false accusations that he’s made against President Obama stem from him reading something from a Breitbart.com reporter. The danger is, this is real-life ammunition that they’re playing with right now.
… To go back to the campaign of 2016. One by one, the Republicans are being vanquished. Increasingly it looks like Trump might be the nominee. Did you have any doubt in your mind that Steve Bannon was helping behind the scenes and kind of out front in lots of ways?
Oh, there’s no question. There’s no question that Steve really was the de facto campaign director of the Trump campaign for a very, very long time. I had said, when he was officially named I think it was the CEO of the campaign, they were just codifying something that had been in place for a very long time at that point. And again, when you look at the coverage and the editorial bent at Breitbart, they very much turned into being the propaganda vehicle for the Trump campaign. That was solidified, really, when you go back to even just March of 2016, when one of their own reporters was reportedly physically confronted by then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and Breitbart was willing to throw her under the bus to preserve the relationship with Trump. I mean, that was emblematic of how far they had gone into the Trump camp and how instrumental Bannon certainly was in orchestrating the way that they were covering Trump.
This moment, the Michelle Fields moment, it exposes maybe an already existing fracture inside Breitbart?
… Yeah, because I think it, for the first time, illustrated in full view how far Bannon was willing to go to protect Trump, even at the expense of one of their own. And I think that there were a lot of reporters who didn’t sign up to be the voice of the Trump campaign … If I wanted to be involved with a specific presidential campaign, I would have gone and done so. That was not my ambition and not something that I was looking to do. And certainly if it were, it was not going to be for Donald Trump.
I think a lot of people at that moment saw just where they were going, where Breitbart was going to spend the following year, basically covering anything for Trump and apologizing for Trump and attacking anyone who questioned him, and I think that didn’t sit well with a lot of people.
It was six of you that walked away, Ben Shapiro and you the most notable. Did you and Ben talk about this before you left?
No. Mine was spontaneous. I had been thinking about moving on for a while, but it was really just a moment of clarity that I had. … I just realized, I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. I am uncomfortable with what I think I’m being put in a position to have to do. I need to just extricate from myself from this right now. And I just went to my laptop, typed an email saying, “Effective immediately, I resign,” and washed my hands of it.
… So Joel Pollak, whom we interviewed, said: “We tried to act the right way. We tried to do the right thing. I don’t know what they would have wanted us to do. We didn’t know the facts.” And your response to that?
Well, I think the one thing that they’re missing there is, at the same time we were publicly trying to stand by Michelle and support her, they were publishing stories on the home page effectively trying to undermine her account. That’s not supporting someone; that’s not standing by them. That’s running propaganda to try to undermine the credibility and integrity of your own reporter, and trying to make something untrue that you don’t want to be true.
And Bannon’s role in all of that?
Well, again, he’s the decision maker. He’s the one who ultimately decides what statement goes out, how forcefully you defend someone, how forcefully you don’t. The stories that went up, again, challenging Michelle’s assertions, were ones that he had to sign off on before going out.
… So now Miller, Sessions, Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Bossie, the Mercer family, lots of people suddenly getting onboard Trump in the summer. And Bannon is right in the middle of it?
Yeah. Well, he’s orchestrating it all … the Mercers, funders of Breitbart, benefactors of Trump; David Bossie, close friend of Bannon … Sessions and Miller; that relationship starts with Bannon and Breitbart … they’re all Breitbart-Bannon orchestrated personnel. So that tells you who’s really running the show and what’s going on at that point.
And when he’s running the show, what show is he running? What’s he doing? What’s he saying? What’s his impact?
I think he’s the guiding right hand, the Karl Rove, if you will, of the Trump campaign. The role that Rove played for Bush, or that [David] Axelrod played for Obama, I think that’s the role that Steve is playing for Trump.
We see him in the back of the room, in that press conference held before the second debate, with Juanita Broderick and Paula Jones and the other two women. Signature Bannon?
Yeah. Again, in your face, you know, bring it right to you, … confrontational and provocative. Again, Steve is orchestrating a television show. Steve and Trump, what people don’t seem to understand about them is they are P.T. Barnum; they are Vince McMahon of the WWE. They are putting out a product, and that product is confrontation and being provocative. And that trumps any ideology, that supersedes any policy, that they believe that they can win when they are instigating conflict … And they do. And everyone eats it up. You know, but that’s the great joke in all of this. Whatever they say, whatever they do, whatever they tweet becomes breaking news, 24 hours of conversations about: “What do you think this meant? You know, what did this mean? And what are they trying to do? And what are they after? And what’s the end goal?” And then they start it again tomorrow and do the same thing, and everyone just saturates coverage with it.
You worked at Breitbart, so you saw this in action. He just basically moved it all over to Trump Tower. It was the same kinds of responses, same kinds of things. Is that what you’re saying?
Yeah, it’s flood the zone. It’s bombard your opposition with content. Watch everyone run in circles, chasing their tail covering that content, and then do something, do it again tomorrow on a different topic. No one can fixate on any one thing for too long, because they have to move onto the next controversy or the next comment or the next fight. You know, it’s catnip for the media and for the political world, and I think that Steve and Trump are very savvy about that in how they use that.
When he left Breitbart to go to the campaign, was Breitbart Trump’s messaging machine?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, to this day they are. Again, the relationship between Breitbart and Bannon and the White House, they are one and the same. Breitbart essentially is a state-controlled media platform, designed to spread to their propaganda to their audience.
… Were you surprised when Trump picked Bannon as his chief strategist?
No. I mean, again, the minute that Steve became the CEO of the campaign, he was going to — that was the role he was going to play, despite laughably saying he would never go work in the White House at the time. That was a bunch of crap. Of course he was going to go do that. Of course he was going to be at Trump’s right hand, and he was going to take on a role that wasn’t the chief of staff. Steve doesn’t want to be in charge of the minutiae of the day-to-day workings of the White House, because if you do that job, you can’t sit next to Donald Trump at everything that he goes to. It’s not an accident that Steve has taken on a position that has no direct management responsibilities and no direct job responsibilities. Really, his job is to just be next to Trump as much as he possibly can.
And that Stephen Miller would join Bannon?
Not shocking at all. …
And the idea that Julia Hahn and Gorka, you know, Breitbart people find themselves 15 steps from the Oval Office, how do you feel about that?
Well, again, it’s Steve expanding his network internally. With Gorka, he has an ally that speaks more to the national security side of things; with Julia, someone who can kind of be his point person, who can be an anonymous source in every story that they want to advance attacking an enemy of Bannon, which is exactly what they’re probably doing. It makes sense, tactically, to build your own fiefdom within the White House, to advance your agenda.
There’s a sort of shock-and-awe idea, a flurry of executive orders in that first week, culminating in the travel ban at the Pentagon. Take me to that moment of the travel ban at the Pentagon. What do you think happened?
Well, I think they wanted to do something obviously big that spoke to the campaign promises that they made, that they were trying to show action and immediacy in velocity, and certainly, to an audience, particularly in the primary Republican side of things, that would have them going: “That’s what we have wanted. That’s what we’ve been missing, someone who will stop these people from coming in here, who will stop these terrorists from coming into our country to do us harm.” And I think in one fell swoop that that was what they were trying to achieve.
I think they grossly underestimated both the legality of what they were doing and the overwhelming, just human element involved in denying people the opportunity to enter this country who had every right to do so. And I think that it showcased really their blind spot, that when you only listen to yourselves, and you label anything outside of that as false news or fake or the enemy, you are trapped in your own echo chamber, and it leaves you vulnerable to missteps like that, where because you are unfamiliar with how governing actually works, because you’re unfamiliar with the law, you go ahead and make grand gestures that end up boomeranging back on you and inflecting damage on yourself needlessly.
… So Bannon, you know him well enough to tell me the answer to this. How did he feel when Trump won?
Oh, that was probably the best day of his life, hands down. I mean, that was the moment where he thought, “Probably won. This has gone further than I ever thought it would,” to, “I’m such a genius for being the man who got this guy elected.” I mean, this was the pinnacle moment of Steve’s life.
And two, when the flurry happens, the shock and awe happens, what is he probably thinking?
I think he said: “This is great. We’re killing it. We’re winning. We’re doing everything that we said we would. We are beating down the establishment and liberals into submission. We are literally making America great again.” I think that he would have said that they’re doing amazing things.
Can you imagine the relationship between him and Trump?
Yeah. Again, I think that they’re kindred spirits. I think they speak the same language. I think that Trump views Steve as someone who actually, truly gets him. I think Steve uniquely knows how to community with an egomaniac like Trump. Steve is very good at flattery and very good at blame, so if something is not going right, Steve will have the answer right away of why that is and who’s to blame. And when something is going well, he’ll be the very first to be able to take credit for it.
… Well, since we’re here at this moment, Bannon, who’s been leading an insurgency and been the anti-establishment guy, now finds himself in the White House having to govern. What, based on how you know him, what is that turn like for him?
Well, I think we saw, with the debacle of Trumpcare unfolding, you know, Steve’s edict to the Republicans when he went to them, saying, you know, basically, “Vote this way, period,” as one member put it, as a dictator, I think he’s finding that that style that he’s so accustomed to doesn’t work with members of Congress who are grown men, adults who themselves also have a healthy ego, I might add. I think Steve is learning that just sheer edict doesn’t work when it’s not some 22-year-old reporter making $30,000 a year. I think that stylistically, Steve is going to have to evolve if he’s going to be successful. I would not be surprised if the lesson that Steve takes away from the health care debacle is to actually double down on force and instead tries to advise Trump to attack members of Congress who aren’t cooperating with him, to go into their districts, to threaten to support their challengers and fundraise for their opponents. That seems to me more of Steve’s style, knowing him, than trying to acquiesce and show a lighter hand. …