A white nationalist’s power play in Trump’s Oval Office
Former friends and co-workers say Steve Bannon has used Trump as a ‘vehicle to get into power’
By Nancy Benac & Jill Colvin
WASHINGTON — People are beginning to pay more attention to the man behind the curtain.
It is a mark of Steve Bannon’s extraordinary sway in the Trump White House that a man who has spoken so little in public over the past two weeks is getting so much credit — and blame — for what’s going on.
The conservative media executive’s fingerprints are on virtually every significant move taken by President Donald Trump, from Trump’s sweeping order to suspend the country’s refugee program and block visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries to the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Trump raised eyebrows and hackles when he gave Bannon a seat on a powerful National Security Council. Bannon, a shaggy-haired agitator-turned-insider eager to make a lasting mark on Washington, was a strong advocate for Gorsuch, according to a person who spoke with him recently. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a private conversation.
Bannon’s early moves to consolidate power haven’t come without pushback.
In a phone call Monday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon asked the White House to take a back seat in cleaning up confusion caused by the chaotic rollout of the immigration order, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about internal government discussions.
Still, the extent of Bannon’s influence was underscored by Trump’s striking decision over the weekend to add his name to the roster of the National Security Council, not typically the province of political advisers.
“Steve’s the main ideological mover of the administration. He’s the chief ideological officer and he has a strong point of view,” said Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a friend of the president. “I think the bond is their world view.”
The 64-year-old Bannon shares Trump’s business and media experience, as well as his dramatic flair. He’s a fellow disruptor who helped Trump capitalize on the populist anger and frustration that propelled them both to the White House.
Rarely seen or heard during Trump’s campaign, Bannon is now a fixture.
If Trump is moving quickly to overthrow the established order, Bannon is the one fomenting rebellion.
If White House chief of staff Reince Priebus is there to maintain order and focus, Bannon is there to wage war.
“He wants to be the intellectual, strategist bomb-thrower,” says former House Speaker and informal Trump adviser Newt Gingrich, who sees Bannon as the perfect ally to the president in disrupting the status quo. “He does not want to be the guy who makes the trains run on time.”
Bannon has cultivated a near-diabolical image in his rare, headline-making interviews.
He recently told The New York Times he sees the media as “the opposition party,” and advised the press to “keep its mouth shut” after it underestimated Trump.
“Darkness is good,” he told The Hollywood Reporter shortly after Trump’s win. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
“I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down…”
As Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, Bannon had a hand in crafting the president’s inaugural address and in selecting his Cabinet. He’s bringing in aides from the conservative Breitbart media empire where he ruled before Trump tapped him to direct his campaign.
Trump’s move to add Bannon to the National Security Council has drawn howls from Democrats and even some Republicans. Bernie Sanders called it “dangerous and unprecedented.” Republican Sen. John McCain called it a “radical departure” from recent history. Former Clinton adviser Robert Reich called Bannon “nuts and malicious.”
Former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, who introduced Trump to Bannon in 2011, says the two got to know each other as Trump appeared multiple times on Bannon’s Breitbart radio show over the ensuing years.
“They believe in each other’s agendas, which is why they have grown so close,” says Bossie.
Still the two are an unusual match. While Trump is not an avid reader, Bossie describes Bannon as “a carnivore of books” who’s always reading and talking history — ancient Greece, the Civil War, World War II and more.
Bannon took over Breitbart News after the sudden death of its founder in 2012 left people wondering what would become of the website. By then, the former U.S. Navy officer and Harvard MBA had left behind Goldman Sachs and investment banking, capitalized on an entertainment deal that left him with a share of “Seinfeld” royalties, founded an institute to ferret out government corruption and created a number of his own films, including paeans to Sarah Palin, the tea party movement and Ronald Reagan.
Under Bannon’s guidance, Breitbart grew into one the right’s most powerful voices as it took on establishment Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan. Critics, however, accused Bannon of allowing the website to become a platform for the white nationalist sentiments of the alt-right — a charge Bannon has denied.
His politics appear to skew closer to European, right-wing views than the typical American conservative agenda. He’s described himself as an “economic nationalist” and has long advocated for closing off the nation’s borders. We’re in the midst of an “outright war,” he’s said, “between “jihadist Islamic fascism” and the “Judeo-Christian West.”
Critics see more self-interest than devotion to conservatism in Bannon’s history.
“He’s really good at ingratiating himself to prominent people,” says Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who’s now a Bannon critic. Shapiro lists Palin, former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and website founder Andrew Breitbart as past subjects of Bannon’s attention. After Breitbart died, adds Shapiro, Bannon began using the website to promote Trump — “and then he was able to use that to enter into the halls of power.”
Another critic, Ben Howe, a filmmaker and conservative blogger who once considered Bannon a mentor and friend, says that while Bannon cultivates the unassuming, rumpled look in public, “he’s nothing like that behind the scenes,” talking nonstop and screaming at those who cross him.
Bannon, he says, “just looks at Trump as a good vehicle to get into power so that he can accomplish his objectives.”