The website named after the late Andrew Breitbart has become a serious force in conservative politics. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The big story on Breitbart.com the other day was, naturally, about Donald Trump. In an “exclusive” interview, the iconoclastic conservative website touted a “special message” from the Republican front-runner — to wit, that he plans to succeed in his bid for the Republican nomination.

“Donald Trump is in to win it,” read the lead sentence. The headline: “Donald Trump Shames the Doubters: ‘My Life Has Been About Winning.’ ”

Okay, not so much news there. But by now, Breitbart’s growing readership is probably used to seeing the site toss a few bouquets Trump’s way. Long before rebellious Republicans and the rest of the news media took Trump’s candidacy seriously, Breitbart was championing Trump’s “anti-establishment” message, one that seems to square with Breitbart’s own ethos.

Trump has returned the favor, doling out so many “exclusives” to Breitbart’s relentless Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle, that some have wondered whether Trump and Breitbart are in business together. (They’re not, both sides say.) Nevertheless, Trump clearly holds a special place for Breitbart, which is named for its late founder, the activist and media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart. When Boyle, 28, asked Trump about his rising poll numbers after a Republican debate last summer, Trump broke into a broad smile and high-fived the young journalist in front of startled onlookers in the post-debate spin room.

The friendly relations have been profitable for both sides. Last month, Breitbart.com and its collection of “vertical” sections (Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, Big Government, etc.) attracted some
17 million unique visitors — a 124 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the digital research firm ComScore.

That puts Breitbart.com at the head of the jostling pack of conservative news sites that have sprouted and thrived in and around Washington in the past few years. The list includes the center-right Independent Journal (15.6 million visitors in December), the Glenn Beck-founded Blaze (13.1 million), Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller (7.4 million) and the Washington Free Beacon (2.44 million).

Among the conservative throng, Breitbart has positioned itself as a kind of populist scourge, a rabble-rouser for the already roused tea party grass roots. As the site becomes even more aligned with Trump, and as Trump continues to be the leading Republican presidential candidate, Breitbart has emerged as a prime rival to Fox News as the media leader for a certain segment of the GOP.

“We call ourselves ‘the Fight Club.’ You don’t come to us for warm and fuzzy,” said Stephen Bannon, Breitbart’s executive chairman and one of its guiding editorial spirits. He adds, “We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class. We say Paul Ryan was grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.”

Rising profile, not all positive

The center of the Breitbart cosmos is a building a half-block from the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill. The historic townhouse serves as the site’s newsroom, party space and home-away-from-home for Bannon, who also lives in New York.

Editor in chief Alexander Marlow, 30, became the site’s first employee in 2008 after meeting the charismatic Breitbart at a conference for young conservatives during Marlow’s senior year at the University of California at Berkeley. (“I was his consigliere,” he says proudly.) Marlow is typical of Breitbart’s youthful staff of 75 or so editorial employees. Many, such as deputy managing editor Ezra Dulis and political reporters Michelle Fields, Alex Swoyer, Julia Hahn and Caroline May, are under 30.

“We hire people who are freaks,” says Bannon, a shaggy-haired former naval officer and entertainment-industry investment banker. (He owns a share of “Seinfeld” rerun royalties from a long-ago deal.) “They don’t have social lives. They’re junkies about news and information.”

Breitbart.com’s road to prominence has been a bumpy one. Andrew Breitbart had a knack for drawing attention and stirring up trouble, which has proved both boon and bane.

Breitbart, who grew up in the liberal Brentwood section of Los Angeles, earned his digital-news chops as a long-serving lieutenant to another conservative media entrepreneur, news-aggregation king Matt Drudge. Drudge, in turn, introduced Breitbart to another Brentwood resident, Arianna Huffington. In an unlikely partnership, Breitbart helped Huffington launch the liberal Huffington Post in 2007.

Striking out on his own, Breitbart’s earliest digital operation consisted of a rudimentary site that provided links to wire-service stories that he (and later Marlow) selected. Traffic built slowly, helped in part by links to the site by Drudge. But in 2009, a new Breitbart site called Big Government caused its first sensation: The site posted undercover videos shot by a conservative activist, James O’Keefe, that showed employees of an anti-poverty group, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), offering advice to a would-be prostitute and her boyfriend (actually, O’Keefe and a colleague, Hannah Giles) about how to set up a prostitution operation.

The videos were heavily edited — they didn’t include, for example, attempts by ACORN employees to discourage the proposed activities — but widespread media coverage orchestrated by Breitbart had a devastating effect. Within two weeks, Congress voted to freeze ACORN’s funding. Federal agencies terminated contracts with the organization. ACORN folded the following spring, citing the loss of public and private funding.

The controversy boosted Breitbart’s profile, already growing from frequent TV appearances. Not all of the publicity was good, however; many media sources questioned the ethics of the O’Keefe sting and Breitbart’s assistance. O’Keefe and Giles, though not Breitbart, were later sued for defamation by one of the ACORN employees featured in the video. O’Keefe eventually paid $100,000 to settle the suit out of court, issuing an apology in the process.

Breitbart’s next big splash was equally fraught. In mid-2010, Big Government posted video excerpts of a speech by an obscure federal bureaucrat named Shirley Sherrod. The clips purported to show Sherrod, an African American, admitting that she had discriminated against a white farmer on the basis of his race when she was a state farm administrator.

Amid another media firestorm, the Agriculture Department fired Sherrod. The only problem: Sherrod’s full speech revealed that she had cited the discriminatory incident to rebuke it — the opposite of how Breitbart and media accounts had presented it. An apologetic and embarrassed Obama administration offered to rehire Sherrod. She, too, sued for defamation, this time naming Breitbart. His estate reportedly settled the dispute in September on terms neither side will discuss.

One infamous Twitpic

The Sherrod fallout “put Andrew in Siberia,” Bannon said. “All of his TV appearances disappeared” in the wake of the story. “We were mocked and ridiculed. There were a lot of bad days back then.”

But the Web, or at least grass-roots conservatives, are a forgiving lot. Less than a year after the Sherrod debacle, Breitbart was back in the game thanks to a bizarre tip: A congressman had posted a link on his Twitter account to a close-up picture of his penis, concealed only by his boxer briefs. Although the link was quickly removed from then-Rep. Anthony Weiner’s account, Breitbart was able to publish an image of the photo and its accompanying message, apparently intended for a female college student.

Weiner initially claimed his account had been hacked. But when Big Government posted a second photo that he’s reportedly sent to another woman— this one of the Democrat shirtless — Weiner admitted his involvement and resigned his New York congressional seat.

The Weiner episode restored some of Breitbart’s diminished luster, at least among the faithful, and reignited Breitbart’s plans to expand his collection of sites into a full-fledged news-gathering operation. Along with Bannon and Larry Solov, Breitbart’s business partner and lifelong friend, Breitbart began raising money for a bigger, better Breitbart News Network.

Solov and Bannon won’t say where the money came from (nor discuss any element of the privately held site’s finances), but media accounts have repeatedly identified Robert Mercer, a little-known hedge fund manager and billionaire, as one of Breitbart’s major financial backers. Mercer has been the leading donor to the super PAC behind Ted Cruz’s campaign. (Before its devotion to Trump, Breitbart was very much in the corner of Cruz, with Politico going as far as calling the site Cruz’s “media lifeline” before the Trump surge.)

Just five days after relaunching his consolidated site in March 2012, Breitbart was walking in Brentwood when he collapsed. A massive heart attack felled him at the age of 43. Bannon said his friend had had warnings and health scares before but that Breitbart had largely shrugged them off. “He was a man’s man,” he said. “He was Falstaff meets Marshall McLuhan. A guy’s guy.”

Breitbart’s early death makes Breitbart.com more than just a business venture to Solov, who grew up with Breitbart. “I feel an obligation to Andrew, his memory, his vision, his family,” which includes his widow and four children, said Solov, the company’s chief executive. “Obviously, I’m running a business, but there is a sense of greater purpose.”

The volatile move to Trump

Opinions about Breitbart among conservatives tend to fall along the establishment-insurgent axis. Columnist Ann Coulter, plainly in the latter camp, is generous with her praise (“No Trump supporter falls short in my book,” she says), as is conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III. “Andrew was smash-mouth,” said Bozell, a Cruz supporter who heads the Media Research Center in Reston. “They’ve maybe tempered a little bit” since his death, “but they aren’t complacent. They’ve given a lot of oxygen to this to-hell-with-you movement.”

But Breitbart’s tilt toward Trump has caused some unease elsewhere, particularly in the Cruz camp. Talk show host Mark Levin, a Cruz supporter, complained last week that Breitbart (and Drudge) “have put their finger on the scales” for Trump. A Republican power broker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly, spells it out this way: “If Trump loses, [Breitbart] will get blamed. If Trump wins and isn’t a real conservative, they’ll get blamed for that. Donors and investors have a long memory. They’ll say, ‘You helped foist that on us.’ ”

Bannon shows little concern about that. He says the company has ambitious expansion plans. Coming soon: new sections on the economy, health, science and education, and on regions such as New York, Florida, India and China, among others.

“This is a land grab,” he said. “It’s still the top of the first inning for all of this.” And with a slight smile, he added: “We’ve got The Washington Post in our gun sights.”