As executive chairman of Breitbart News, the self-styled “anti-establishment” conservative website, Stephen K. Bannon made his contempt for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Republican insiders explicit last year: “We say Paul D. Ryan was grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation,” he said.
Bannon left Breitbart in August to serve as Donald Trump’s chief strategic adviser, a role he rode straight into the White House alongside Trump. But Bannon’s distaste for Ryan (R-Wis.) doesn’t seem to have left Breitbart.
The site, now seen as a bellwether and proxy for all things Bannon (if not Trump), has been vicious lately when it comes to the American Health Care Act, the Obamacare replacement legislation that Ryan rolled out last week.
Many conservatives and conservative media outlets have been critical of the bill, but Breitbart has striven to lay its perceived flaws right at the feet of Bannon’s old nemesis. Upon the measure’s introduction, for example, Breitbart dubbed it “Obamacare-lite.” Its main headline on Tuesday described it as even worse than simply getting rid of the current law: “CBO: Full repeal of Obamacare insures more Americans than Ryan’s Obamacare-lite plan.”
Just in case anyone missed the point, Breitbart on Monday dropped another bomb on Ryan. It posted an audio recording from October in which the speaker, during a conference call with Republicans, said he won’t defend Trump — “not now, not in the future.”
Breitbart’s Washington editor, Matthew Boyle, used the recording as a peg to question Ryan’s loyalty to Trump and the wisdom of those supporting him and the bill. The list of would-be suspects included White House press secretary Sean Spicer and “a handful of other White House aides who came from the Republican National Committee and are not Trump loyalists,” according to Boyle.
He concluded, “There are now rumblings among House Republicans that they may want a replacement not just of Obamacare but a replacement of Paul D. Ryan as speaker. A new speaker, some argue, would make life much easier for President Trump as he moves forward with his agenda.”
For all its fire-breathing coverage, Breitbart seems to have overlooked President Trump’s support of the Ryan bill. But criticizing Trump would be unusual for Breitbart, which has generally celebrated his issues and election.
Instead, Breitbart’s attacks on Ryan have led some to wonder if Bannon is secretly orchestrating a media campaign to pin the legislation on an old rival and to shift it away from Trump.
“I think Bannon is creating a fall guy here so Ryan gets the blame when [the health care bill] crashes and burns,” said Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman who parted ways with the site after a falling out last year. “They are playing to an audience, their base, that is conditioned to think the worst of the speaker. By publishing the [audio recording] now, they are reminding their base that he was never really with them.”
Breitbart Editor Alexander Marlow says there’s nothing unusual or surprising about the coverage of Ryan. “Our thoughts and feelings about Speaker Ryan have been consistent for years, and there’s no reason to think they will change anytime soon,” he said Tuesday.
He also denied that Bannon was pulling any strings from the West Wing. “Steve has no influence over editorial at Breitbart News and hasn’t since he left the website in August,” Marlow said via email. “A couple of us are in touch with Steve sporadically. He’s a busy man.” Marlow added, “I have not had a conversation with Bannon about this bill, and I cannot read his mind.”
As for the decision to publish Ryan’s recorded comments, which were made in October in reaction to The Washington Post’s publication of a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape from 2005 on which Trump bragged about groping women, Marlow turned the issue around. “Why did The Washington Post post 11-year-old audio of Trump’s hot mic comments to television host Billy Bush? Was The Post hoping to embarrass him? Or was The Post hoping to make the most important election in our nation’s history about private sexual braggadocio?”
(In comments to Fox News on Tuesday, Ryan said the audiotape was “ancient history” and that it was widely known that he and Trump “had our ups and downs during the campaign.”)
As Marlow notes, Breitbart was indeed tough on Ryan well before the speaker turned out the first major piece of legislation of the Trump administration last week.
A Breitbart story in July described four “grieving moms,” whose children had been killed by undocumented immigrants, as they tried to confront Ryan about his “open-borders” agenda at his home in Janesville, Wis.
Another story in late October suggested that Ryan had waged a “months-long campaign to elect Hillary Clinton president.” It reported that Ryan and Clinton “share a progressive, globalist worldview” — perhaps the two most damning adjectives in the Breitbart-ian vocabulary — that is “at odds with Trump’s ‘America First’ approach.”
Both stories were written by Julia Hahn, who has since left Breitbart to become a special assistant to the president.