BRISTOL, England — Arron Banks sipped his milky tea and patiently explained to an American journalist that he really doesn’t give a hoot.
That campaign made him the largest political donor in British history — and he made history because his side won.
Banks and his inner circle now find themselves under the trans-Atlantic microscope, of at least peripheral interest to the Mueller investigation and subjects of inquiries by the British Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and a parliamentary select committee, all investigating Russian interference, fake news, spending irregularities and data misuse in the Brexit campaign.
All a witch hunt, Banks says.
U.S. congressional investigators are now in possession of thousands of emails and texts generated by Banks and his Brexiteers — documents that were stolen, says Banks; documents that were leaked by whistleblowers, say British journalists.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he has pressing questions about whether Banks and his associates “served as a conduit of information to and from the Russians on behalf of the Trump campaign.”
Bring it on, Banks says.
Banks spoke with The Washington Post twice this week, once at his insurance company headquarters, which even Banks says looks like the stage set for Ricky Gervais’s British mockumentary “The Office,” and once at Old Down, a sprawling hilltop estate with giant rabbits, wandering llamas and views all the way to Wales that Banks rents out for weddings and seminars for pensioners on “wealth management.” He lives in a much smaller farmhouse down the road.
He yanked off his necktie. He smoked a ciggy. Never mind his cardiologist, who scrawled “LIFESTYLE” on his medical report.
The clubby, moneyed, wily, cricket-mad conservative compares his insurgency, favorably, to the Viet Cong.
He admires guerrillas, disrupters and President Trump.
Banks told The Washington Post he did indeed meet with the Russian ambassador in London at least four times. They got drunk together. They texted. First names.
The ambassador tried to hook Banks up with a deal to consolidate Russian gold mines. Later the Russians dangled a diamond deal.
“So what?” Banks shrugged. He took a look, he said. He’s a businessman, after all. He has a stake in diamond mines in South Africa and a uranium mine in Niger. But, he insists, he didn’t do any deals with the Russians — no gold, no diamonds.
Banks said he would be happy to appear before the U.S. House, if invited. He seems one of those rare individuals who enjoys the theater of appearing before select committees.
When he and his business partner, sidekick and Brexit spokesman Andy Wigmore, were recently grilled by British lawmakers as part of an investigation into fake news, it was must-watch television for political nerds.
The duo kicked off the session by asking committee chair Damian Collins if he’d like to recuse himself because he had accepted tickets to a Chelsea soccer match — the club is owned by the Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich.
“Nice try,” said Collins, who gave as good as he got.
The session came to a halt when the duo walked out. They were asked to stay for five more minutes to finish, but Banks said they were late for lunch.
“You can join us if you want,” Wigmore told lawmakers.
Banks has been to Trump Tower with Farage and Wigmore. They were the first foreign delegation to get a meeting with the president-elect in November 2016.
Wigmore, whom Bank affectionately calls “the worst PR man in London,” said he believes Trump will turn out to be “the greatest president in American history.”
Banks nodded his head, yes.
During their testimony before the British Parliament’s select committee investing fake news, Wigmore and Banks admitted they enjoyed misleading journalists. Banks called reporters “the cleverest, stupidest people on earth. They are clever, but they want to believe some of this stuff.”
The Parliament member, Collins, told The Post that Banks “publicly played down his contact with the Russian Embassy and Russian businesspeople. Clearly, there’s a lot more to it.”
Collins, who has been investigating the Kremlin’s political interference for thepast two years, said the Russian style is to reach out to fellow travelers with shared worldviews — they see a person who is disrupter and try to help that person along.
Banks is a student of Trump speeches, which display a kind of genius of repetition, he says, a classic propaganda tool. Emotion. Emotion. Repeat. Repeat. “Crooked Hillary.” “Low-energy Jeb.”
“It’s what sticks in people’s minds,” Banks said.
Banks said they tried to mimic Trump’s style in the Brexit campaign.
Like Trump, Banks is a super tweeter, an online duelist — and a serious troll.
For example, he dismisses reporter Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer newspaper — who has published major scoops on Banks, Cambridge Analytica and Russian influence — as the “sad cat lady” who is obsessed with him.
Cadwalladr told The Post that Banks was a “laddie” who bobs and weaves but when caught in a fib says it was all just a lark. “The cat lady stuff is pure misogyny,” she said. “But the ugliness of the current attacks shows they’re running scared.”
This sort of stuff seems to goose Banks on. He loves to play head games with journalists and goads Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to deliver the definitive, hard, cleaving Brexit that he says voters voted for.
His Russian wife, Katya, a former gymnast and model, showed up in the rose garden with three of their five dogs. She had Russian cousins in tow.
“Watch that one; he’s a nipper,” Banks warned of the dachshund.
Katya was involved in a complex British-Russian scandal that made the news in 2010 and that never really came to anything — but in Banks style, their big Range Rovers in the drive now sport license plates reading KBII SPY and X MI5 SPY.
Few people in the British political class knew who Banks was in 2014. His father ran farms in South Africa. Banks didn’t go to university. Then he said he’d give 100,000 pounds to the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), the anti-immigrant, Make Britain Great Again party, dismissed by Tories as a bunch of whack jobs and racists who could barely win a seat in Parliament.
When William Hague, then the leader of the House of Commons, sniffed that he’d never heard of this Arron Banks character, the insurance magnate told Farage to make his donation a million pounds.
Combined with Brexit, Banks said he gave $13 million. He insists it was all his money — not Russia’s.
“As much as it's divisive — and there's no two ways about it, Brexit and Trump are divisive on an epic scale — I do think sometimes you need characters in history that change the direction of things, and that’s what's happened with Brexit,” Banks told The Post. “Our politicians are struggling to come to grips with it, but is that any surprise?”
Banks’s book, written in the aftermath of the historic vote, is a loose diary — a self-serving, funny, self-depreciating, humble-bragging insider’s account.
Many paragraphs begin:
“Ten G&Ts later . . .”
“Before I got too squiffy . . .”
“Amid the alcohol joviality . . .”
The book’s ghost writer, British political journalist Isabel Oakeshott (whose emails were the ones that went missing), concluded that Banks and Wigmore “were shamelessly used by the Russians” in a “classic Russian fishing expedition.”
We asked Banks about that. He called the assessment “harsh” and explained that he and Farage and Wigmore were worried enough about the accusation that they briefed American diplomats on their Russian contacts — so as not to embarrass Trump.
Rob Ford, a London academic and co-author of “Revolt on the Right,” described Banks as a polarizing, outspoken character “who seems to quite enjoy the spotlight and the controversy he generates, one of those people who likes to say provocative things and then sit back and watch everyone argue.”
Would Banks meet Trump when he comes to England later this month?
“We wouldn’t say no,” Banks answered.
Wigmore joked, “Tell them we’re not radioactive!”
How the ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’ forged ties with Russia and the Trump campaign — and came under investigators’ scrutiny