Journalist Says Steve Bannon Had A 'Years-Long Plan' To Take Down Hillary Clinton
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Perhaps the most controversial move Donald Trump has made since winning the election is the appointment of his campaign chair Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor for the president. Before joining the campaign, Bannon was executive chair of Breitbart News, a far right website that revels in provocative stories and headlines such as "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy" and "Bill Kristol: A Republican Spoiler Renegade Jew." A New York Times editorial condemned Bannon's appointment, and the Southern Poverty Law Center is circulating a petition urging Trump to rescind the pick.
The center has called Breitbart News a white ethno nationalist propaganda mill. Bannon has described Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right, but he disputes the charge that he or the website embraces racism or anti-Semitism. To learn more about Bannon, we're going to hear from Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek who wrote a lengthy profile of him last year before Bannon joined the Trump campaign. Green is the magazine's senior national correspondent and a weekly columnist for The Boston Globe. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Joshua Green, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start at the beginning. Tell us about Steve Bannon. Where did he grow up? What was his background like?
JOSHUA GREEN: Well, Bannon grew up in a blue-collar, Irish-Catholic family outside a naval base near Richmond, Va. And after college, he joined the Navy - this was in the late '70s - wound up with a job in the Pentagon got a Master's degree in Georgetown. And he became captivated, I think, by what he saw going on on Wall Street. This was the '80s. It was Ronald Reagan being an investment banker seemed like an adventure. He said that friends who were in the field told him, you know, if you really want to be a good investment banker, you need to go to Harvard Business School. And so he applied, got in, and that was the path that he took.
DAVIES: Got out started working at Goldman Sachs. What did he do? What did he specialize in?
GREEN: Well, basically, the way Bannon described it to me is he had to talk himself into a job at Goldman Sachs, but he wound up specializing in mergers and acquisitions, and this was at a time when Wall Street was changing and banks like Goldman recognized that there was going to be a premium on specialization. And so Bannon decided to specialize in media and shipped out to Goldman's Los Angeles office and basically wound up as a dealmaker making deals between movie studios and TV companies. After a few years of doing that, he and a partner ventured off on their own and Bannon started a boutique investment bank that got further invested in setting up deals between people like Ted Turner and Castlerock Pictures and negotiating different fees and different deals and becoming very wealthy along the way.
DAVIES: Some of this money comes from "Seinfeld" royalties. Is this right?
GREEN: This is true, yes. I mean, he told me that one of his most memorable deals was between Ted Turner and Castle Rock Pictures, which I believe own the rights to the "Seinfeld" show which at the time was only in like its first or its second season. It was far from a hit. Turner wound up a bit short of cash when it came time to come to the table. And rather than let the deal fall apart, Bannon agreed to take residuals from a basket of TV shows that included "Seinfeld" in lieu of his full fee. And the way he described it to me he said that "Seinfeld" was the runt of the litter that there were other shows that were more popular and seemed like they would pay off more down the line. But, as we all know now, "Seinfeld" became an enormous hit. And so he's had a steady stream of income from that ever since.
DAVIES: Because he was in the entertainment end of the financial industry, he ended up making movies. He made a documentary, I guess, about Reagan called "In The Face Of Evil." This was around the time he connected with Andrew Breitbart. Tell us who he was and how they got together.
GREEN: Well, Andrew Breitbart was a conservative provocateur, I guess is the best way to put it. But he's someone who lived out in Hollywood. He worked for Matt Drudge who runs the Drudge Report website, so he's someone who has a deep, deep understanding of kind of how the culture processes political news and how to shape news narratives by focusing people's attention on certain stories or certain storylines. Breitbart was an interesting guy because he lived and circulated in Hollywood which, as we know, tends to be a bastion of liberalism. But here he was a conservative rubbing elbows with people like Arianna Huffington, a lot of other folks. Breitbart delighted in kind of, you know, provoking and outraging those liberals, really derived a lot of joy, I think, from being the skunk at the garden party.
Bannon himself was living out in LA at the time - had become really smitten with Ronald Reagan after his time in the Navy. He read a book by a conservative author named Peter Schweizer called "Reagan's War" and decided, you know, he had the money. He thought he understood the entertainment industry, and he made a documentary called "Reagan's War" about Schweizer's book. And it was at the premiere of that movie in 2004 - Bannon describes it - that Breitbart essentially came storming out of the audience and gave him a big bear hug in a speech about how guys like them had to take back the culture. And basically Breitbart, I think, conscripted Bannon into what was then - it was pre-Tea Party, but it was that kind of Republican populist view that we have to kind of rise up and take back our government and take back our culture. And Bannon obviously heard a lot in that that he liked, and so he wound up becoming a financial backer and then ultimately the executive chairman of Breitbart News after Andrew Breitbart died.
DAVIES: I had forgotten this, but it was Breitbart News that broke the Anthony Weiner texting scandal originally.
GREEN: It was, yes. And that was a classic Breitbart kind of story in that it took someone who was a liberal, culture warrior all over TV, you know, loudly condemning Republicans, and essentially exposed him as a hypocrite in the most embarrassing and humiliating sort of way. And if you remember back to that scandal, you know, initially Weiner denied it, and then he said he'd been hacked. And then there was just this bizarre surreal scene where Weiner was getting ready to have a press conference and all of a New York media had assembled around this empty podium. And then out from backstage comes not Anthony Weiner, but Andrew Breitbart himself who hijacked the press conference and the microphone and began taking questions from astonished reporters. That was a classic Breitbart kind of move just creating a media firestorm, and then kind of gleefully egging it on and ultimately, you know, that took down Anthony Weiner.
DAVIES: Andrew Breitbart died in 2012 suddenly, and Bannon became executive chairman of Breitbart News. Was his approach any different from Mr. Breitbart?
GREEN: The way that Bannon describes it, there is a clear continuation for Matt Drudge to Andrew Breitbart to Breitbart News as it exists under Bannon and Larry Solov who is the CEO. What Bannon told me - I went back and pulled some notes from my interview at the time - he said Breitbart is almost like a medieval guild where you're passing on that special knowledge, you know. We learned it from Andrew who learned it from Drudge. We are going to carry on the banner and keep doing what Andrew wanted us to do. So that is sort of the view or the conceit that folks at Breitbart News have, this idea that they're kind of carrying on Breitbart's war against the culture. And that's very much what Bannon seemed to think he was doing over the last few years.
DAVIES: In 2012, when Steve Bannon was the executive editor of Breitbart, he established a research arm - the Government Accountability Institute. What does it do?
GREEN: Well, Bannon - what attracted me to Bannon originally was that, you know, if you look at kind of the infrastructure, the organizational chart of the Republican right-wing, what Hillary Clinton once referred to as the vast right-wing conspiracy, what you see is that a lot of the tendrils lead back to Steve Bannon. So not only was Bannon executive chairman of Breitbart News, but then with some of the same financial backers, he started the Government Accountability Institute which is a nonprofit research organization based in Tallahassee. And whereas Breitbart is gleefully provocative and hard right, the conceit at GAI is that this is a research organization that is going to do digging and stick to the realm of facts, and they're going to investigate corruption in cronyism in government, be it Republican or Democrat. GAI was a pretty sleepy shop.
But what really brought GAI into the forefront was that GAI's president, Peter Schweizer, wrote the book "Clinton Cash" that became an unexpected best-seller back in the spring of 2015, just as Hillary Clinton was getting ready to launch her presidential campaign. It drove up her unfavorability ratings, and it raised all sorts of pernicious questions about who Clinton - in the Clinton Foundation had financial relationships with and whether or not this was going to be a problem in her presidential campaign.
It was clear, I think, from the scope and tenor of the coverage that there was really something there. And that is the other way, I think, in which Bannon has been able to hack mainstream media news coverage because these "Clinton Cash" stories and the various relationships that the book documented were intentionally not published on right-wing sites like Breitbart News. What GAI did instead was to reach out to investigative reporters and mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and others and try and encourage their reporters to take this research that they'd done and to go off and do some digging on their own. And they did, and that wound up resulting in front-page stories in a lot of major newspapers that got this negative information about Clinton in front of a whole different audience than reads Breitbart News or listens to talk radio.
And if you look at how Donald Trump chose to run against Clinton in the general election, Trump was essentially channeling the same attacks that Bannon had conceived and pushed in the "Clinton Cash" book. And so - and, you know, so ultimately, you know, he succeeded in this year's-long plan to plot and carry off the downfall of Hillary Clinton.
DAVIES: Joshua Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Joshua Green. He is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. We're talking about Steve Bannon, who has been named to a senior post by President-elect Donald Trump.
You know, there's a lot of consternation, criticism, alarm about the appointment of Bannon to a senior-level position in the Trump White House. The concern is that it suggests a tolerance, if not embrace, of racism and anti-Semitism. What about the idea that Breitbart News itself propagates, you know, white supremacist views? I mean, The New York Times editorial on this said to scroll through Breitbart's headlines is to come upon a parallel universe where black people do nothing but commit crimes, immigrants rape native-born daughters and feminists want to castrate men. The Southern Poverty Law Center says he made Breitbart News a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.
What's your sense of the content of Breitbart News?
GREEN: Well, it is certainly inflammatory and fixated on race, on religion, on all the sorts of things that have upset people. I think the thing to understand about Breitbart - and this is not to excuse anything they write or publish - is that they are deliberately provocative. They're aiming to offend and upset people in order to stoke the grassroots anger at government and the broader culture.
In internet language, it's an elaborate and effective trolling operation because that is what martials this group of disaffected Republicans, you know, and other people sometimes referred to as the alt-right, but essentially this splinter faction of conservatives who have attacked and now taken over the Republican Party over the last four or five years.
DAVIES: You know, it's one thing if white supremacists read Breitbart News and if they write shocking comments in response to the stories. But as you look at the content, I mean, does the website seem to, you know, embrace and propagate these views of white nationalism and white supremacists? What's your sense?
GREEN: I think it certainly fuels those views. And, you know, I had a discussion with Bannon about this back in 2015 about - you know, I said, you know, you're a former Harvard guy, you're a Goldman Sachs banker. I'm sort of shocked at some of the things you write because you come out of a culture that isn't, you know, openly racist or anti-Semitic.
And what he said essentially was that they are trying to reach an audience that doesn't have an outlet anywhere else in mainstream media. I pulled up some of the quotes. He said, you know, we focus on things like immigration, ISIS, race riots, what he calls the persecution of Christians. He says, we give a perspective that other outlets are not going to give. There are not a lot of outlets that are covering that, at least not from the perspective that we should be running a victory lap every time some sort of traditional value gets undercut.
The question I was always interested in getting at with Bannon was do you really believe this stuff - because a lot of it is offensive and inflammatory. And he said, you know, personally I'm mixed on a lot of this stuff. But we're airing a lot of things that traditional people are thinking that don't get mainstream media representation anymore. So they were making a market for these kinds of views and these kinds of stories and attracting an audience, what's turned out to be an extremely large and powerful audience by tapping these sentiments.
DAVIES: I'm wondering what Bannon brought to the campaign. It seems like his real expertise is in messaging. Was he primarily a guy who brought that expertise?
GREEN: I think messaging and theater, for lack of a better word. I mean, Bannon is a guy who came out of the media world. He used to be a movie producer. He made documentary movies. He's somebody, I think, with a pretty clear sense of narrative and also of the value of presentation and how you can seize the attention of the entire political culture if you push the buttons right.
I think he's figured out that you can essentially seize control of the political conversation through stunts like the one that Bannon orchestrated before the second debate, where he rolled out all these women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and sexual harassment. And he's somebody, I think, who takes Trump's impulses and channels them into a more or less cogent worldview that fits into this right-wing populist ethos that Bannon is all about.
DAVIES: You know, what's interesting about it is that if Bannon was good at pushing Trump in directions of appealing to this provocative populist message, it's - in the closing days of the campaign when Trump was muted and on message and not making headlines that he really made progress in the polls. It's kind of an irony, isn't it?
GREEN: No, I actually wouldn't agree with that.
GREEN: I think in the closing days of the campaign if you listen to what Trump was saying - I mean, it was unhinged - I mean, this stuff about dark conspiracy theories and cabals of global bankers. It struck tones, I think that were anti-Semitic. I would argue that Trump in the final weeks of the campaign was, you know, mainlining the purest distillation of Bannon's views out there on the stump. And, to my shock and a lot of other peoples, that actually resonated with a much larger segment of the electorate than we had anticipated.
DAVIES: He's an interesting character, and, you know, in your profile of him, the photos show him wearing cutoffs. And when you see him in photos now like with the transition team, he really stands out from the Trump family who are so carefully, you know, tailored and coiffed. I mean, Bannon, you know - he looks a little unkempt. He might have a little growth of beard. He doesn't have a tie. His hair isn't exactly combed. I mean, you know, if one were being unkind, you might say he looks like somebody ready to mix it up. You spent time with him. Is this a cultivated look or is that just him?
GREEN: That is just him. I mean, if you want to be blunt, he looks like a bloated homeless alcoholic...
GREEN: ...And revels in that view. And if you look at the cover picture he let us shoot for business week, he is sitting on a couch wearing like two polo shirts on top of each other with an Oxford shirt over that and cargo shorts and flip flops - clearly hasn't shaved or showered. He revels in this image of himself as an outsider who is giving a big middle finger to the system.
DAVIES: There are petitions circulating urging Trump to reverse the hiring of Steve Bannon. Why is he so loyal to Steve Bannon?
GREEN: There's been so much kind of shock and consternation about how a guy like Bannon who is so far outside the bounds of anybody who'd typically be considered for, you know, a West Wing position gets elevated to one, I think it's important to remember what we've just witnessed and what Trump himself has just seen that Bannon - and this is what originally attracted me to him as a profile subject - is a smart guy and a clever strategist who orchestrated this elaborate plan to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency that we've just watched work. It succeeded.
And so I think that Trump has a degree of faith in Bannon that he doesn't have in another people. And I think that's why Trump has been willing to withstand all the intense criticism over the Bannon appointment that we've seen in the last few days. To me it's sort of like the least shocking aspect of what Trump has done in appointing Bannon to the West Wing. I mean, the guy hatched this elaborate plan to stop Clinton, and it worked.
DAVIES: The plan being to research her background as the State Department and put out the book and feed it to the mainstream media?
GREEN: Yeah. Well, the plan being, you know, this multi-year, multifaceted effort to take down Hillary Clinton, right? Part of it was Breitbart News with its rolling narratives about how Clinton was corrupt and doing Benghazi and this and that and really stoking all this conservative right-wing anger against her and against any Republican that treated her as anything less than, you know, a terrible pariah and a threat to the country. That eventually came to include people like Paul Ryan who are the most mainstream of Republicans. And then on the other hand, you have the Government Accountability Institute and the "Clinton Cash" book that figured out a way to kind of hack into the mainstream media and propagate these negative anti-Clinton stories. It had the effect of driving up her unfavorability ratings.
If you look at what happened in the election, essentially Clinton was too unpopular to reconstitute the Obama coalition that got him elected twice. She lost the presidential race narrowly. I mean, to my mind, Bannon is one of the major figures, if not the major figure, that conceived of an orchestrated and carried out that attack. That was what he laid out in the piece that I thought was so interesting. And, to be honest, I never thought in a million years he would carry it off. But, look, he has.
DAVIES: Joshua Green, thanks so much for speaking with us.
GREEN: It was great being with you.
GROSS: Joshua Green is senior correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek where his profile of Steve Bannon was published. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.
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