Stephen K. Bannon helped build Breitbart News Network into the clarion of Donald Trump’s anti-establishment political movement with a pugnacious approach that critics have called racist, misogynistic and xenophobic. And then Bannon really went to work for Trump, steering the campaign that made Trump the 45th president.
Now, as Trump ascends to the White House, the question is: Where does Breitbart end and Bannon and the new administration they helped midwife begin?
Trump on Sunday named Bannon his chief White House strategist and senior counselor, a powerful position that acknowledges Bannon’s role as the “Trump whisperer,” the man with the president-elect’s ear. Bannon, a former investment banker, joined Trump’s campaign in August and helped guide it to its stunning upset over Democrat Hillary Clinton last week.
Since then, neither Bannon nor staff members at Breitbart have spelled out what their relationship will be after candidate Trump becomes President Trump. But even if Bannon and the website sever all ties, they will face an unusual, and awkward, situation: Bannon would be the former executive of a media organization that openly supported his political patron who will serve the president in a senior capacity while his media organization continues to cover him and his new boss.
“Breitbart will now go from being the propaganda arm of the Trump campaign to effectively becoming a state-run medium,” said Kurt Bardella, Breitbart’s former spokesman. “They will exist to tell the narrative of the Trump presidency to their audience to ensure their alternate reality they successfully ran on stays intact regardless of the situational reality and condition of this country. There is no separation between Breitbart and the Trump White House.”
Bannon remains on Breitbart’s masthead as its executive chairman, although his day-to-day involvement as its chief editorial strategist (and host of its daily satellite radio program) were mothballed when he officially joined Trump’s team over the summer.
He also remains chairman of the Government Accountability Institute, a think tank that supported the research behind “Clinton Cash,” by GCI president Peter Schweizer. The book detailed Bill and Hillary Clinton’s business and philanthropic interests, including the role of foreign governments in supporting the charitable Clinton Foundation.
Beyond that, much is unclear. Breitbart News, like Trump, has never made its financial records public, so it’s not known whether Bannon owns stock in the organization and whether he would sell it to avoid any appearance of a conflict while serving in the White House.
Breitbart News Network LLC — which is based in Los Angeles but operates a newsroom out of a Capitol Hill townhouse that also serves as Bannon’s pied-à-terre in Washington — is closely held among a few people, including co-founder Larry Solov and the family of the late Andrew Breitbart, its other founder.
One of Breitbart’s primary financial backers is billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, whose daughter, Rebekah, is part of Trump’s presidential transition team. The Mercers were reportedly influential in persuading Trump to add Bannon and pollster Kellyanne Conway to his campaign team.
Alexander Marlow, Breitbart’s editor in chief, declined to clarify the site’s relationship with Bannon in an exchange of emails Sunday. Breitbart’s spokeswoman, Alexandra Preate, also would not offer a response. Bannon did not reply to a request for comment.
The most obvious change is definitional. Trump’s election has transformed Breitbart from a scrappy, even scabrous outsider — the scourge of what Bannon and Marlow contemptuously refer to as “the establishment” — into the ultimate insider and defender of the status quo.
The “outsider” role was enormously rewarding for Breitbart, which started in 2008 as an aggregator of wire-service articles selected by Andrew Breitbart and Marlow, then a student at the University of California at Berkeley (Breitbart died of a heart attack at age 43 in 2012; Bannon, then a board member, stepped in weeks later as executive chairman). Since then, and particularly this year, it has grown into the home of the rising Trump movement and its shadowy underbelly, the alt-right that is often synonymous with racism and white nationalism.
Last month, it reported that it had reached a new high-water mark for online traffic with 37 million unique visitors, a count that rivals such mainstream news sites as ABCNews.com and CBSNews.com and exceeds LATimes.com. It has also announced plans to expand to sites in Germany and France, adding to its existing international operations in Great Britain and Israel.
On Monday, the site continued to stump for Trump with headlines that attacked his now-defeated, and largely powerless, opponents.
“Clinton Top Aide Huma Abedin Seen Openly Weeping on Streets of New York,” read one. Another: “Giuliani: ‘Professional Protesters,’ Not Hillary Supporters, Marching Across the Nation.” And another: “Meltdown Continues: Wave of Fake ‘Hate Crimes’ Sweeps Social Media.”
It also kept up its relentless attacks on immigration and “multiculturalism” that not only echo Trump’s views but also those of Europe’s far-right political parties, such as Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party in Britain and Marine Le Pen’s National Front. A typical headline on the site Monday: “Feds Pull Agents Off Open Border to ‘Process’ Alien Surge.”
Bannon was little known outside political circles until he was appointed to Trump’s campaign in mid-August. The spotlight was not flattering; reporters unearthed a police report from 1996 in which one of Bannon’s ex-wives, Mary Louise Piccard, accused him of misdemeanor domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness (Bannon pleaded not guilty and the charges were dropped). Piccard later said in divorce proceedings that Bannon didn’t want their daughters to attend an exclusive school in Los Angeles because many Jewish students attended the school and “he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”
Another media report disclosed that Bannon and another ex-wife were registered to vote in two places, including at a vacant house in Florida that was scheduled to be demolished — a potential violation of election law. The report was particularly ironic, given Trump’s claims of rampant voter fraud.
All of which may help explain negative reactions to Trump’s appointment of Bannon to a senior role in his administration. On Sunday, Republican strategist and CNN and ABC News commentator Ana Navarro tweeted about Bannon: “A white supremacist Neanderthal in WH w/President’s ear is DISGUSTING & TERRIFYING.”
Breitbart’s biggest star is British blogger and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who helped lead the attacks on female video-game programmers in an online troll war that became known as Gamergate. Twitter permanently banned Yiannopoulos in July after he led a wave of racist abuse of “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones.
“They were the house organ for Trump and will obviously remain so,” said Ben Shapiro, a former columnist and editor at large at Breitbart.
Bardella and Shapiro ended their association with Breitbart in March after the site publicly doubted and later rebuked one of its own reporters, Michelle Fields, after an incident at a Trump news conference in Florida. Fields said Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, had grabbed her arm and yanked her away from Trump as she sought to interview him at the event.
Trump and Lewandowski denied Fields’s assertions and, like Breitbart News, disparaged her. But a closed-circuit recording of the event showed that Lewandowski had done exactly what Fields described.
Media figures such as Bannon sometimes take an informal advisory role in presidential administrations, but only a few have leveraged their influence over a news organization to gain office or become senior advisers, said W. Joseph Campbell, a media historian at American University in Washington. Among others, Campbell said, were newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who served two terms in Congress, but he failed in his bids to win the presidency or governorship of New York; President Warren G. Harding, who had been a newspaper publisher in Ohio; and President Lyndon Johnson, who owned radio and TV stations in his native Texas.