How the Trump-Bannon Alliance Took Shape
When Steve Bannon first met Donald Trump, the idea of a presidential campaign was only beginning to take shape.
In 2011, Trump conducted preliminary talks to consider what a bid for president might look like in the upcoming election cycle and to weigh the odds of winning such a bold gamble. He began consulting with David Bossie, president of the conservative advocacy nonprofit Citizens United, and after a few meetings, Bossie tapped his friend and collaborator Bannon “to talk about how to build this thing out,” Bossie told RealClearPolitics.
Trump ultimately decided to put his White House plans on pause, along with any official collaboration with Bannon. But the business mogul would continue to informally cultivate both.
Trump and Bannon crossed paths occasionally at conservative events as each laid the groundwork for his own ambitious project. Trump hoped to sell himself to conservative activists as a credible candidate for president down the line; Bannon, meanwhile, signed on in 2012 as chief executive of Breitbart News.
“As Breitbart grew, Mr. Trump was constantly in touch with Steve about news articles and doing interviews with his reporters,” Bossie said. Bannon would also launch a radio show, on which Trump appeared as a regular guest; when the program moved under the Breitbart banner in 2014, Trump was Bannon’s first interview. In this election, the site has helpfully amplified Trump’s message and defended him against attacks.
“It was an organic thing,” Bossie said of the relationship between the two men, now five years in the making.
That strategic alliance bore fruit in spectacular fashion Wednesday, when Trump named Bannon as his campaign’s chief executive officer, supplanting campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Trump also announced that Kellyanne Conway, a pollster who had already been advising him, would be promoted to campaign manager.
The news sent shockwaves through Republican circles, suggesting Trump has decided against moderating his tone for the general election, instead favoring the sort of brash – some would call it reckless -- populism that Bannon has championed from the outside.
At conservative activist Grover Norquist’s weekly Wednesday morning meeting in Washington, D.C., attendees received the development coolly. Ann Stone, co-chair of the Women Vote Trump super PAC and ex-wife of Trump’s informal adviser Roger Stone, began to try to make the sell — but snickers and even some outright laughter broke out.
When Stone mentioned Conway’s promotion, pro-life activist Larry Cirignano attempted to lead a round of applause. But no one joined him, an attendee related to RCP.
“It was just a perfect illustration of how cleaved the conservative movement is on this campaign,” the attendee said. “In certain pockets of the movement, people are no longer afraid of the Trump campaign. They’re simply making fun of them.”
If Manafort’s hire was intended as an olive branch to wary Republicans, Bannon’s might be arson. Under his leadership, Breitbart has antagonized Republican leaders and other party lawmakers, in some instances offering vocal backing to their long-shot primary opponents.
Bannon’s approach at the news outlet, including actively picking winners and losers in elections, and supporting Trump in particular, has also unsettled some staunch conservatives.
On his radio program in February, Glenn Beck described Bannon as “a horrible, despicable human being” who hoped to ingratiate himself with Trump so that “he can either be chief of staff or he can be the next Roger Ailes.”
“By taking orders from a political candidate and reworking your entire site to promote the lies of a specific candidate without any kind of truth behind these things...if that is what your idea of being Roger Ailes is, you are so sadly mistaken,” Beck said. “That doesn’t make you Roger Ailes. That makes you Goebbels.”
Behind the scenes, Bannon is said to be more frank with Trump. When the candidate last year said of Sen. John McCain’s military service and five years as a POW, “I like people who weren’t captured,” he refused to walk back his remarks. But Bannon, a former naval officer, called Trump repeatedly, urging him to rethink his tack and apologize.
Bannon does not come by his political instincts or connections through any campaign experience, but rather has charted an unusual course to the top of a presidential campaign. After his stint in the Navy, Bannon attended Harvard Business School and afterward scored a job on Wall Street working for Goldman Sachs. A successful finance career led him to California, where he at first financed films, but later decided to create his own.
He established his partnership with Bossie during this chapter, collaborating on conservative film projects. Bannon, a “voracious reader” of news and war stories, Bossie says, wrote, co-directed and co-produced. Their best-known undertaking was a 2008 political documentary, “Hillary, the Movie,” which led to the landmark Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision. Their newest project, “Torchbearer,” explores religion with “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson and will be released next month.
If Bannon entered politics through a back door, however, he has since moved in and changed the locks. In addition to his work with Breitbart, he sits on the board of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit founded by “Clinton Cash” author Peter Schweizer. And he is a close ally of Robert Mercer, the Republican mega-donor; Bannon collaborated with him to launch the data outfit Cambridge Analytica, which was used by Ted Cruz’s campaign during the Republican primary.
In June, Bannon and Conway, another Mercer ally, helped the Mercer family launch the Defeat Crooked Hillary PAC, to target donors wary of giving to Trump. When Conway made the jump to the campaign, they persuaded Bossie to step in.
Now, Bannon is stepping in to lead Trump’s campaign at a defining moment — and without traditional campaign experience as a guide. There is ample reason to doubt that a man who has distinguished himself by reshaping the Republican Party, shrewd calculator though he is, would be equipped to sell Trump to a general election audience.
But Bossie, who recognized Bannon’s talents early and helped stoke them, including by introducing him to Trump, isn’t surprised that Bannon would try.
Bannon “has always been someone who understands what the trends are in American politics,” Bossie said, “and he’s always been ahead of it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included a critical remark by Glenn Beck about David Bossie. In fact, Beck was speaking about Stephen Bannon.