Donald Trump’s appointment of conservative media guru Steven K. Bannon as a top White House aide has Republicans in Congress scrambling to avoid guilt by association without casting aspersions on the president-elect before he takes office.
“The president-elect has to be able to select his best team,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Monday to reporters asking him whether House Republicans were comfortable with Trump choosing Bannon.
The former head of Breitbart news, Bannon has published stories taking aim at Muslims, Jews, women and African Americans, as well as making his own allegedly anti-Semitic statements.
But Republicans seem unwilling to judge Bannon on that track record — or even accept that he bears responsibility for the more incendiary headlines from the news organization he led.
“Did he write it? Give me something that he wrote,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), said when asked about whether Bannon’s appointment. “I hear a lot of innuendo of this, but I haven’t seen it.”
McCarthy also suggested that reported information about Bannon, including the headlines on his website, could be wrong.
“I’ve seen things said about me that I know are not true, but because they’re on the Internet, ‘they must be true,’ ” McCarthy said.
The furthest that McCarthy would go in criticizing Bannon is to say that if he had indeed published a Breitbart headline calling former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) a “human shield” for the gun-control movement, “nowhere would I ever agree with those words, nowhere would I ever stand behind those words.”
Other Republican members said they didn’t expect Breitbart news headlines that were approved under Bannon to have any bearing on how he would advise Trump in the White House.
“Of course I’d have serious problems with anti-Semitic statements coming out of the White House, but I don’t expect that,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.)
Bannon’s appointment, Cramer added, to him “symbolizes tremendous loyalty” and that Trump understands a system of “checks and balances is appropriate even within his own shop.”
Many Republicans spoke highly of Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman whom Trump newly named his chief of staff. McCarthy said Priebus had assured him that the Bannon being portrayed in the press was “not the Steve Bannon I know.”
“But Donald Trump has the ability to select who he thinks could move forward,” McCarthy concluded.
Few GOP members of Congress appeared to have a relationship with Bannon. McCarthy said he and Bannon had one short phone conversation Sunday night to get acquainted.
McCarthy said he would tell minorities who fear the message of Bannon’s appointment: “Don’t prejudge the new president. Give him an opportunity to govern.”
“If there’s something he proposes that you disagree with, fight it,” McCarthy said. “But why do you prejudge him?”