Robert Kuttner, the co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect, got an email from an address he didn't recognize Tuesday afternoon. The emailer said White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon wanted to talk to him.
But why Kuttner? And why then, on the day of what Kuttner calls President Trump's “calamitous news conference” about Charlottesville?
“I wasn't totally surprised that he would call me,” Kuttner said in an interview Thursday, “because as he explained in the conversation, his strategic view here is that there are some lefties who think we're being taken to the cleaners by China, there are some righties who think that, so you pull together a grand coalition.”
Not that Kuttner thinks Bannon or Trump would ever brag to fellow conservatives about having the editor of the American Prospect on their side.
But Kuttner was surprised that Bannon was so frank in his comments, on the record.
“About two minutes into the conversation, it dawned on me that he never bothered to put this off the record,” Kuttner said. “I was just stunned that the conversation went on and on and on. He's talking strategy, and he's being incredibly indiscreet in the way he's trashing various colleagues.”
Bannon went on to talk about economic policy, particularly what he feels is a coming trade war with China, as well as Trump's posturing toward North Korea, which Bannon called a “sideshow.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below:
THE FIX: Can you take me through that unexpected phone call? How did Mr. Bannon get in touch, and why did he want to talk?
KUTTNER: I was totally stunned.
I mean, I'm on vacation in the Berkshires, listening to music and going to Shakespeare, about midday on Tuesday. And that was the day that Trump's calamitous news conference happened. Later on in the afternoon, I get his email from a young guy identifying himself as coming from Bannon's office. “Mr. Bannon would like to meet with you at the White House.”
So I look at the “456” number, I looked at the EOP email address. It looked legitimate, I called him. It was legitimate. So we set up a time. About 45 minutes later, Bannon called and he started out by flattering me, telling me how he'd been a fan of mine for years and we seem to be exactly in the same place on our view of China, and blah blah blah.
And about two minutes into the conversation, it dawned on me that he never bothered to put this off the record. And obviously the ground rules in journalism are that if a high government official calls you and doesn't bother to say it's off the record, you assume that it's on the record.
And so I was just stunned that the conversation went on and on and on. He's talking strategy and he's being incredibly indiscreet in the way he's trashing various colleagues, and explaining how he's going to get this one fired and take over, and then we get into the Korea/China nuclear story. And I think it was a column that I'd written on this a day earlier saying that China was really taking advantage of us, because in order to get their help on Korea we're going to have to fold our hands on trade. And that's Bannon's view. And he also was astonishingly dismissive of his boss's view of saber-rattling, saying that that's not going to happen, because 10 million people in greater Seoul would get killed. And so far, from calling me to defend his boss, this was one of the interesting things. He called me to advance his own agenda, whether he thought it was on the record or off the record.
And he was quite cavalier in saying things that were quite at odds with the presumed administration line, if there is one, both on China-Korea, where the line is, we're going to make nice with them now, for a while anyway, and see if they help us out with Korea.
And then when I push him on the white nationalist stuff. You say what you need to say, so he starts saying some very dismissive things about the base that he helped create. And the most astonishing thing of all — I don't know if you've seen this — but the Daily Mail last evening has this interview where Bannon, having said that, “Oh, this was a misunderstanding, I didn't realize this was on the record.”
Now he's saying, “I did this deliberately to help the president out by diverting attention from all the stuff that's going on in the aftermath of Charlottesville.” So you wonder how clearly he's thinking. I guess that's one question. And I think you could attribute this to hubris in the sense that, if you're so full of yourself, your judgment starts faltering, and then there are some people who have said, “No no no. He did this deliberately he wanted to get these views out.” I don't think so. This was like a stream of consciousness.
And it's not exactly a secret that Bannon talks to press people. Scaramucci was obsessing about leaks. Bannon is one of the people who talked to the press off the record. So I suppose you could say this was a rookie error on his part. But this guy is not exactly a rookie. So I was kind of a little baffled at why he didn't put this off the record. I wasn't totally surprised that he would call me, because as he explained in the conversation, his strategic view here is that there are some lefties who think we're being taken to the cleaners by China, there are some righties who think that, so you pull together a grand coalition.
I also thought that was odd, because you can imagine Trump going around the White House and the Defense Department and the State Department, saying, “Hey, I got Bob Kuttner on my side.” That doesn't exactly enhance his credibility with his colleagues.
FIX: Why did he reach out to you? You don't exactly align with Breitbart, for example, which he used to run.
KUTTNER: He's a risk taker, and he's a proselytizer, and he thinks he can win people over to his view of economic nationalism and he's got enough bravado and enough self-confidence that I think he enjoys engaging lefties just for sport. And I think he can learn something by engaging lefties. And he also couldn't resist gloating about how he and the president are promoting xenophobia, getting tough with immigrants while the left is sort of stuck on fighting racism. And he basically said we win that fight. So he was all over the place in terms of whether he was distancing himself from racists or embracing them in a more subtle way.
FIX: There's this idea that Bannon is some kind of puppet-master, planning this all out on a grand scale and controlling things behind the scenes. But it seems like this was more spur-of-the-moment?
KUTTNER: Oh, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. On the one hand he's got his own agenda on trade and he's sort of obsessively pursuing that. On the other hand, you have to believe that the president doubling down on getting in bed with the racists and the neo-Nazis and maybe pardoning Joe Arpaio — it's impossible not to see Steve Bannon's hand in that.
This is exactly the kind of tactic where Bannon would be encouraging Trump to be true to his own instincts. And I think if Bannon doesn't get fired, and I guess this is my most important takeaway. He's got enemies all over the administration. But the one guy who counts, the president, relies on Bannon for the architecture of this alliance with the far right. And the connection between anti-immigrant policies and getting into bed with racists and maybe a dose of economic nationalism, even though it's not clear that the president's going to deliver on that. So it will be very telling of where Trump is on this stuff, when we find out whether Bannon survives.