Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, secretly met with American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten in April to talk about education issues because Trump “likes her” and supported opening a conversation to see whether there was common ground, according to the man who arranged the meeting.
Chris Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media Inc., set up the April 19 meeting in a closed restaurant near the White House, according to both Ruddy and Weingarten.
Ruddy said that Bannon, who was ousted from the White House in August but still talks routinely to Trump, is not “as doctrinaire and conservative as people might think” on education issues and wanted to open a conversation with Weingarten. Many critics of Bannon see him as a racially divisive figure who fuels Trump’s nativist instincts.
Bannon could not be reached for comment, and the White House did not respond to queries about the meeting. Weingarten, who was an active supporter of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign and whose union gave Clinton an early endorsement, responded to Ruddy’s comments about Trump’s support for talks with her, saying in an email:
“I knew these were surreal times right now, but really? Appointing anti-public education lobbyist Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, releasing a budget to defund and destabilize public schools, and paying for tax breaks for the rich and corporations by eliminating the state and local tax deduction, which would take money away from public schools, police and fire services, is a very bizarre way of saying you like someone or care about public schools.”
Ruddy is a friend of both Trump and Weingarten. Before entering journalism, Ruddy was a public school teacher in New York City who was active in the United Federation of Teachers, which represents most teachers in New York City and which was led by Weingarten for more than a decade. “I’ve always had a strong belief in public education,” Ruddy said in an interview.
The idea for a conversation between the White House and Weingarten developed, Ruddy said, when he was talking to the president about education and mentioned he knew Weingarten. Trump also knew her — both were prominent figures in New York in their own fields.
“The president knows her and likes her,” Ruddy said. “He obviously knows her from the New York world. . . . So I mentioned this to the president as an opening to communications with her. Steve [Bannon] was excited about that. I set up a meeting and they had a private meeting outside the White House.”
Weingarten said Wednesday she thought Bannon sought the meeting — initially reported by the Intercept — because he believed there was common ground; she and her union have been critical of the power of hedge fund managers and “crony capitalists,” as has Bannon. But she said his “theory of the case” is “laced with a white-supremacist nationalism that is abhorrent.”
Ruddy said he, too, disagreed with Bannon on many things, including immigration and tariffs. But, he said, “On education issues, I believe when you find an overlap you work together.”
Ruddy said that in conversations with Trump about education, the president “told me a couple of times that he believes strongly both in public schools and charter schools and we can support both.” Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated. Trump also supports vouchers and similar programs that use public funds for private and public school tuition. The president has proposed slashing the Education Department budget, and characterized public schools as part of “American carnage” in his inaugural address.
“The president once said that education was infrastructure,” Ruddy said. “He doesn’t downplay it, the importance of teachers and education.”
Trump has been blasted by public school advocates for selecting DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, as education secretary because, for decades, she has been a leader in a movement that pushes alternatives to traditional public education. DeVos has said she views traditional public schools as “a dead end,” though she has also denied that she wants to privatize all of them, as her critics charge. She and her husband, Dick DeVos, have spent money and time pushing charter schools as well as vouchers and similar programs.
The first visit Trump made to a school as president was to a Catholic school in Florida that accepts hundreds of students who attend with help from the controversial Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. That program offers tax incentives for individuals and corporations to donate to organizations that provide “scholarships” for private and religious school tuition and other educational expenses.
Weingarten, now head of the 1.7 million-member national union, worked for more than 25 years in New York as a lawyer, teacher, union activist and United Federation of Teachers president as well as the head of the Municipal Labor Committee, the confederation representing all of the municipal New York City unions, including police and fire.
“Of course I knew Donald Trump,” she wrote in the email. But, she added, “as I said over and over during the 2016 campaign, I never saw Donald Trump at any of the events or any of the groups that devoted themselves to children or to public schools.”
Weingarten said she agreed to meet with Bannon because she will talk to anybody — especially those in a position to influence public policy — to advocate for public schools and that she spent much of the 1 ½-hour conversation challenging Bannon’s views on race and other issues while also advocating for public education.
Weingarten and Bannon did not meet again, though they did talk briefly on the phone a few times, she said.
Now that Bannon is gone from the White House, Ruddy said he hopes the president will become more engaged in education issues.