InterviewTrump saw a presidential opening; Bannon knew how to use it

Biographer unpacks Bannon’s ‘big, formative influence’ on Trump

‘I don’t think Trump would be president today if it weren’t for Steve Bannon,’ says best-selling author Joshua Green

US President Donald Trump, left, congratulates then senior counselor to the president Stephen Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on January 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump, left, congratulates then senior counselor to the president Stephen Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on January 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon first reached out to Joshua Green in 2011. Green, who was then a correspondent for The Atlantic, had just written a big piece on Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and John McCain’s running mate three years earlier, with the expectation that she would run for president.

At the time, such a conjecture did not push the boundaries of credulity, even throughout political Washington. Palin was seen as a rising star of the Tea Party movement and the populist right — much of which, maybe all of which, was a response to Barack Obama’s election — and she was still benefitting from the loyal following she galvanized on the 2008 campaign circuit.

“She was the candidate with all the heat and light and buzz and excitement,” Green said.

And there was no one who was more excited about the prospect that Palin might enter the 2012 race than an obscure investment banker turned filmmaker named Steve Bannon.

Sarah Palin, seen at an August 2008 campaign rally in Missouri. (geerlingguy/Creative Commons)

He had just made a documentary on Palin called The Undefeated and wanted to meet Green and show him the film. Green obliged. He went to his sound studio, watched the movie and, after speaking with Bannon, realized that he himself might be a compelling subject for a magazine piece.

“Even back then he was the same guy that he is today, sort of hyper and energetic, a charismatic guy with a wild background as a Goldman Sachs banker and a Hollywood film producer who had a very distinct and interesting set of political ideas,” he said. “He was an interesting character, and as a political magazine writer, you’re always looking to find people like that. So I hung out with him on and off for years.”

Palin didn’t end up running for president, but Green’s time with Bannon eventually resulted in an October 2015 profile for Bloomberg Businessweek, where he works now, titled, “This Man Is The Most Dangerous Political Operative in America.”

Among other things, the article detailed how Bannon, who was then running the far-right Breitbart News, was informally advising then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who was sending shockwaves throughout the political universe.

Specifically, Bannon encouraged Trump to visit the US-Mexico border. That turned into a spectacle-like event that would draw the media and give him a high-profile opportunity to harp on the supposed threats of illegal immigration.

Joshua Green, author of the best-selling book ‘Devil’s Bargain.’ (Matt Mendelsohn)

What Green soon realized was that the Tea Party ideology that Palin epitomized in 2011 was morphing into Trump’s populism in 2015. But Bannon, he said, was “the real intellectual driver of those ideas.”

Little did Green know, however, that a little more than a year later, Trump would shock the world by defeating Hillary Clinton.

His story for Bloomberg Businessweek would plant the seeds for what later became his best-selling book, Devil’s Bargain, published in July, about the partnership between Trump and Bannon that helped the former ascend to the White House.

Understanding Trump’s rise

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Green explained how he came to write this book and what his reporting tells us about Trump’s political rise and his perpetually fraught presidency.

A veteran journalist who has covered the conservative movement extensively, Green, 45, was uniquely equipped to take on this subject.

Incorporating his reporting from the last six years, Devil’s Bargain is rich with precious anecdotes, especially from the 2016 campaign trail.

It depicts a scene from Election Night, for instance, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie approached Trump to tell him that he’d been in touch with then President Barack Obama’s team and that, if Trump were to win, the president would call him on Christie’s phone. (The two had worked together in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the Garden State’s coastal towns in 2012.)

New Jersey Governor and former White House hopeful Chris Christie (left) listens as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (right) speaks to the media in Palm Beach, Florida, March 1, 2016. (AFP/Gaston De Cardenas)

Trump, as Green describes, is notorious as a “fanatical germaphobe, and gave him an immediate look of annoyance. He then snapped. ‘Hey, Chris, you know my fucking number. Just give it to the president. I don’t want your fucking phone.'”

Devil’s Bargain, by Joshua Green

Stories with that kind of vibrancy are scattered throughout the book, and so, too, is reported analyses of how Trump’s path to reaching the highest position of power came about.

Green notes the way Trump’s flirtation with a presidential run in 2011, while spreading the false accusation that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, helped him realize there could be an opening for him within the Republican Party.

“Trump was struck by how unwilling Republican leaders were to stand up and call out that kind of behavior,” Green said.

Trump basically recognized that they were afraid to do so.

Reince Priebus looks on as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to greet Bob Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, before their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

“The example I use in the book is Reince Priebus who, in the spring of 2011, had just been elected as chairman of the Republican National Committee and, in his first national interview on C-SPAN, was confronted about Trump’s accusations regarding Obama’s place of birth. He wouldn’t call it out. He wouldn’t condemn it, as he should have. That was a signal to Trump that nobody was going to stand in his way.”

Then, Trump noticed, he was leading in the Republican national polls. He figured out that he would be rewarded, not penalized, for pushing certain boundaries and eroding certain norms.

“Trump concluded that ‘not only can I say this stuff and not pay any political price, but it actually helps me and the evidence is right here in the polls,'” Green said.

Shortly after, something happened that Green portrays as crucial.

When Trump became serious with the idea of running for president — after his humiliation by Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner — he began associating himself with a distinct brand of political operative.

“There’s been a whole subcategory of professional Republican politics — this has been true since the 1990s when Bill [Clinton] was president — where you can essentially carve out a career for yourself as someone who specializes in attacking the Clintons,” Green explained.

That included the rise of prominent conservative pundits in the 90s, around the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, and includes Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Kellyanne Conway.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, left, and senior adviser Stephen Bannon, right, walk on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Jan. 26, 2017, (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

It also included people like David Bossie, who was the chief investigator on the House Oversight Committee that investigated the Clintons in the 90s.

After leaving that post, Bossie became chairman of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, where he famously produced an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary that became the heart of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which substantially changed campaign finance laws in America.

Green posits that having people like Conway as his final campaign manager and Bossie as his deputy campaign manager were critical to Trump’s ultimate success.

“There were a group of people who were steeped in all the Clinton scandals, understood where she was most vulnerable, and had a lot of experience knowing what were the most effective attacks,” he said. “I thought it was vitally important that in the homestretch of the campaign, those people were put in charge of the Donald Trump operation and were able to take their knowledge and marry it with the power and money of a major party presidential campaign to go after the same woman that they’ve essentially been plotting against for 20 or 25 years.”

The Trump-Bannon connection

Trump met Bannon in 2011, when they were introduced through David Bossie. Trump told Bannon he was thinking of running for president, and Bannon offered to give him advice.

Trump immediately liked him, Green said. “On a personal level, Bannon was a guy who Trump could relate to because he was a businessman, he was a dealmaker, and he was also somebody who had been involved in movies and television, which Trump himself was — Bannon, of course, being a Hollywood financier and film producer before he turned to politics.”

“Bannon was also a guy who had made himself rich,” he added. “If you talk to people around Trump, they’ll tell you that gave Bannon a lot of esteem in Trump’s eyes.”

But there was another aspect of Bannon that resonated with Trump.

In this April 29, 2017, file photo, Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist to US President Donald Trump, tours The AMES Companies, Inc., with the president in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

“Bannon had a very clear and distinct politics that Trump sensed meshed with his own views — criticizing foreign trade deals, warning about the threat of China,” Green said.  “I think the element that Bannon added to Trump’s worldview was the supposed menace of illegal and legal immigration.

“But Trump, who was just at that point getting serious about running for president, needed a set of issues and ideas to run on and Bannon helpfully supplied that.”

It wasn’t until August 2016 that Trump made Bannon the CEO of his campaign. Joining the team in an official capacity just a few weeks after calling the website he ran the “platform of the alt-right,” an amorphous designation that denotes a loose collection of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other hate groups, Bannon was widely credited for helping Trump craft a message that appealed to that base.

When Trump won the election and made Bannon his chief White House strategist — in which he shared top billing with then-White House chief of staff Priebus — he elicited outrage from Jewish groups and others who accuse Bannon of giving anti-Semites and other racist voices a platform.

Green said there is a certain paradox reflected in Bannon’s relationship with the Jewish community. “Bannon vehemently denies that he’s an anti-Semite. He considers himself a Zionist,” he said. “He would point out that Andrew Breitbart, Larry Solov, the CEO of Breitbart, and many of the staffers at Breitbart News are Jewish, and that he opened up a Breitbart Jerusalem Bureau.”

“On the other hand,” he went on, “it seems pretty clear that the tone of Breitbart’s coverage has attracted swarms of anti-Semites on social media and in places like Charlottesville during the March. So I think there’s a clear tension in Breitbart’s relationship to these anti-Semitic alt-right groups, where they insist that they don’t agree with those ideas, and yet a lot of those people are nonetheless attracted to Breitbart News.”

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. Standing alongside him from L to R, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

It was many of those people who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia in August when a white supremacist rally turned violent. Trump, at first, refused to explicitly condemn the rally goers. When Uuder pressure to apologize and give a more forceful denunciation, Trump blamed both sides for the violence and said “very fine people” were marching with the white nationalists.

Throughout that whole ordeal, Green said that Bannon’s thinking was that the media was laying a trap for Trump.

“‘Either you call them out and sort of admit you have some responsibility, or you refuse to call them out and the media and politicians will attack you,’ Green said, depicting Bannon’s rationale.

“Either way, the episode is being used to hurt Trump politically,” he continued. “That’s something obviously Bannon fought against vehemently and was a voice in Trump’s ear encouraging him not to apologize and not to fall into that trap.”

Three days later after Trump’s notoriously defiant press conference in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, when he vociferously defended his initial reaction to the rally, the pressure mounted even more and Bannon left his job in the White House.

Bannon’s influence over Trump

Almost immediately after his departure, Bannon announced he would be returning to his perch at Breitbart News. He also gave a number of media interviews, including several with Fox News and a 60 Minutes segment.

In his interview with CBS’s Charlie Rose, Bannon tried to explain his departure from the corridors of power as a liberation of sorts.

After accusing the Republican establishment of resisting the Trump agenda and trying to “nullify” the election, he said: “I cannot take the fight to who we have to take the fight to when I’m an advisor to the president as a federal government employee.”

Green thinks there is some truth to that claim. “I think being on the outside allows Bannon to return to the kind of role he had before, where he can be completely uninhibited,” he said.

Nevertheless, “there’s no substitute for the influence you have when you can walk into the West Wing and talk to the president of the United States directly,” he added. “That’s something that Bannon has lost.”

In this Jan. 27, 2017, photo, from left, White House senior advisers Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are seen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington during a meeting between President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

But he still appears to be influencing Trump in various ways. The Washington Post reported that Trump asked the Fox News personality Sean Hannity, in a private conversation: “Is Steve still with me?”

They have differed on a few matters — like when Trump agreed to the framework of a deal to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi — and they each supported different candidates in Alabama’s special election for a US Senate seat.

Roy Moore, then GOP Senate candidate and former chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court speaks during the annual Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shorham Hotel on October 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

Bannon backed Roy Moore, a highly controversial judge who has said homosexual conduct should be illegal and that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress, whereas Trump endorsed his opponent, Luther Strange.

Moore won.

Green said Bannon will continue to look for candidates like Moore, who can “steer the party in the more populist direction that Bannon wants.”

But whether Bannon is able to succeed in ultimately tilting Trump more toward his brand of economic nationalism is unclear. Green contends, however, that the influence he’s already had over the 45th president is enormous.

“Historically, I think that Bannon helped inform Trump’s politics and his worldview to an extent that people still don’t fully appreciate, because at the time Trump met Bannon in 2011, right about the time when he was becoming serious about politics, when serious political advisers wouldn’t give Trump the time of day, people like Bannon  were meeting with him and tutoring him on a brand of politics that you see reflected in Breitbart News — populist, anti-immigrant, nationalist — that flirts with racial and anti-Semitic undertones, all the things that we saw Trump express as a candidate and on the campaign trail,” he said. “I think a lot of that came from Bannon. I think he had a very big, formative influence on Trump.”

He then paused. “I don’t think Trump would be president today if it weren’t for Steve Bannon.”

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