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Joshua Green on the "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump & the Storming of the Presidency"

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Update: On Aug. 18 the White House announced Steve Bannon would leave his role at the White House

We turn now to look at the man many credit with helping Donald Trump become president: Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News. During the early days of the Trump presidency, many suggested Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was pulling many of the strings in the Oval Office. We speak to journalist Joshua Green about how Bannon took his hard-right nationalist politics from the fringes of the Republican Party all the way to the White House. Green has been closely following Bannon’s career for years. In October 2015—before Bannon joined Trump’s campaign—Green dubbed Bannon the "Most Dangerous Political Operative in America." His new book is "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at the man many credit with helping Donald Trump become president: Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News. During the early days of the Trump presidency, many suggested Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was pulling many of the strings in the Oval Office. Time magazine put Bannon on its cover in February with the headline "The Great Manipulator." That same month, Bannon, in a rare public comment, outlined his plans for the Trump administration.

STEPHEN BANNON: I think if you look at the lines of work, I kind of break it out into three verticals or three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty, and that’s your intelligence, the Defense Department, homeland security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism. The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state. ... If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason. And that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs is that if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put it in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed. And I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Steve Bannon speaking at the CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Well, a new book by our guest, Joshua Green, chronicles how Bannon took his hard-right, nationalist politics from the fringes of the Republican Party all the way to the White House. Green has been closely following Bannon’s career for years. In October 2015—before Bannon joined Trump’s campaign—Green dubbed Bannon "the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America." At the time, Bannon was head of Breitbart News and overseeing a multifaceted campaign to take down Hillary Clinton, as well as more moderate Republican candidates. Joshua Green’s new book is titled Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.

So, Josh, talk about the rise of Donald Trump and why you think Steve Bannon was so key. Perhaps if there hadn’t been a Steve Bannon, there wouldn’t be a President Donald Trump.

JOSHUA GREEN: That’s my contention in the book. And I think that the best way to understand this election, to understand what happened and how a guy like Trump wound up in the White House, and really to understand the forces that are roiling our politics and producing such extreme and unusual things, as we see literally every day now in the Trump administration—to understand that, you have to understand Steve Bannon. To me, he is the narrative thread that runs through not just the rise of Trump, but the rise of this whole right-wing populist, nationalist politics that he has been espousing ever since I first met him in 2011.

And the story I tell in the book, basically, is the intertwined story of the rise of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. But Bannon, I met back in 2011, when he was working on a documentary film about Sarah Palin, who he hoped would run for president in 2012. And he was trying to fill her head with the same ideas and the same policies that you heard from Donald Trump. It took him a while to find his candidate. But he was brought into Trump’s orbit in 2010. He began advising him, kind of tutoring him on politics informally, at a time when everybody else–and certainly I—didn’t take Trump seriously as a politician. I thought he was going to goose his ratings.

But Bannon was able to take his nationalist politics—and, in particular, the idea that there is political power in taking a hard line on immigration, on demonizing immigrants as marauders and killers, that Trump seemed to have intuitively sensed would resonate among Republican grassroots voters. And the combination of birtherism, which Trump pioneered on his own, and this anti-immigrant sentiment kind of mixed together to produce the candidate who upset the entire Republican field.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how Bannon came into Trump’s orbit, not originally, but in the summer of 2016, how he came to take over. And this, of course, is also the story of the Mercers.

JOSHUA GREEN: Yeah, sure. Well, I mean, Bannon had been this kind of minor figure in Trump’s life since 2010, when a veteran anti-Clinton activist named David Bossie brought him along on a trip to Trump Tower just to tutor Trump about politics. But he didn’t enter most people’s political awareness until he took over the campaign dramatically, in August, mid-August of 2016, at a time when Trump looked like he was floundering and almost certainly headed toward a blowout loss.

And I have a scene in the book that begins with the daughter of a right-wing—very secretive right-wing billionaire named Robert Mercer, who is the co-CEO of Renaissance Technology. It’s a fabulously successful hedge fund.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s based out in Stony Brook, Long Island.

JOSHUA GREEN: It’s based in Stony Brook, Long Island. Mercer and his daughter, I call them in the book kind of the alt-Koch brothers. You know, the Koch brothers tend to be more mainstream. The Mercers have much more unusual and different beliefs. And they are essentially, or have been, Steve Bannon’s benefactors over the last couple years, pouring money into Breitbart News, but also into a movie production company; Cambridge Analytica, a data sciences firm that Trump relied on; and, most importantly, a nonprofit research entity down in Tallahassee, Florida, called the Government Accountability Institute, which produced the Clinton Cash book that came out on the eve of the election and sort of tarnished Hillary Clinton’s image by documenting her ties to some of these shady foreign donors.

Well, the Mercers were big backers of Trump. They were originally behind Cruz, but once he fell, they got behind Trump right away, in a way that a lot of other wealthy Republicans were loath to do, giving him money, setting up a super PAC. But Rebekah Mercer, the daughter, who is very aggressive in getting involved in the candidates and causes she backs—I have a scene in the book where she flies out to a Trump fundraiser in Long Island, demands a meeting with Trump—and you can do that if you’ve given him millions and millions of dollars, as the Mercers have—and says, "Look, you’re losing. You’re going to lose this election unless you make a change." And Trump says, "Well, yeah, things aren’t going real well, but..." And she says, "No, you’re losing. And the only way you’re going to win is if you have a radical change. I have a team of people that I think ought to take over your campaign"—Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and, later, David Bossie, all of them veteran Clinton activists. And Trump, who was frustrated with his current campaign manager, Paul Manafort, agrees and says, "OK, let’s put them in charge. We need somebody who can hit harder."

Bannon is this famously aggressive Breitbart News publisher who would not be held back, has the same instincts as Trump. And people didn’t know it at the time, but Trump had known Bannon for a long time. And lo and behold, we wake up, I think on a Wednesday morning, to this announcement that Steve Bannon, despised by just about everybody in Washington, is now in charge of Trump’s presidential campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: And Paul Manafort is out, something he was resisting, and Jared Kushner played a role in that.

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, it’s funny. Paul Manafort wasn’t out, originally. And what Trump did was he hired Bannon, I think on a Sunday night, without telling Paul Manafort or anybody else. And there’s a scene in the book, where it’s on a Sunday, and Trump tells Bannon, "OK, you’re in. Drive out to my country club in Bedminster, New Jersey, tomorrow. We’re going to have a senior staff meeting," with Giuliani and Chris Christie and Manafort and all the kind of campaign brain trust. Kushner actually wasn’t there, because he was off yachting in Croatia with David Geffen, so he wasn’t present for that meeting. But at the meeting, Manafort, who still thinks he’s in charge of the campaign, walks into a room and sees Steve Bannon there. And Bannon says, "Hey, I’m kind of joining the campaign."

And Trump is in a very bad mood, because The New York Times has just run this embarrassing story saying that Trump’s own advisers feel they can’t talk to him, and so they have to go on cable news in order to send a message to Trump. And Trump, who’s been made to look like a fool, explodes at Manafort. There’s a scene I have in the book where he says, "You know, am I a baby, Paul? Do you treat me like a baby? You have to go on TV?" and curses him, in language we probably can’t use on the air here. A couple days later, decides that Manafort has to go. But Trump, despite the public image, doesn’t like to fire people, so he deputizes his son-in-law, back from his yachting trip with David Geffen, at a breakfast, to get rid of Manafort, who resists. And then—

AMY GOODMAN: Because, he says, "You’re going to make it look like I’m guilty on the Russia stuff."

JOSHUA GREEN: Exactly. He doesn’t want to do it, because he’ll look like he’s guilty of taking money from this pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. And he resists, and Kushner says, basically, "You’re going. We have a press release coming out saying that you’ve resigned, and that goes online at 9:00 a.m., and that’ in 30 seconds." And that was the end of Paul Manafort and the beginning of the successful Steve Bannon era of the campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about Steve Bannon and his background, where he comes from, for people to understand the different forces at play.

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, so, the newspaper bio synopsis of Steve Bannon is that he comes from a blue-collar, Irish, Democratic, Catholic, Navy family in Richmond, Virginia—dad was a telephone linesman—and went to Virginia Tech, got into Harvard Business School, was in the Navy, later Goldman Sachs, and wound up in Hollywood, first as a film financier, an investment banker, and, later, once he had made some money, he moved over to the creative side and began making conservative documentaries.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say "made some money," we’re talking Seinfeld.

JOSHUA GREEN: We’re talking Seinfeld, yes. So, the interesting, weird little detail in Bannon’s life is that while he was an investment banker, he brokered a deal between Castle Rock Pictures, which owned Seinfeld, which was in its infancy at the time, and Ted Turner, who wanted to buy the shows. And as Bannon tells me the story in the book, you know, when they sat down on the table, Turner was short of cash. And so, rather than let the deal fall apart, Bannon took—in lieu of his ordinary advisory fee, he took a basket of residuals from five television shows, including Seinfeld. As we all know, Seinfeld went on to become, I think, the most popular sitcom in television history and throw off an awful lot of money. Bannon and his partner own a very small part of that, but enough that they’ve made millions and millions of dollars from it. So, once Bannon got to that point, he decided he wanted to give a kind of a full airing to his hard-right conservative politics, which I think he had kept hidden as he traveled through the worlds of Harvard and Goldman Sachs and Hollywood, where you’d—

AMY GOODMAN: Goldman Sachs’s hero, Michael Milken.

JOSHUA GREEN: That’s true. Bannon—so, Bannon was at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker in the mid-1980s, at the height of the leveraged takeover boom. If you’ve ever read Barbarians at the Gate or some of these books, you know that there were these outsiders who were kind of storming the fortress and taking over sort of fattened corporations that were vulnerable to these outsiders. Bannon, I think, to his frustration, worked for Goldman Sachs, which would never align itself with a corporate raider, as it always did defense. But he recognized in Michael Milken a guy who was kind of his spirit animal: "Here’s an outsider, you know, storming the fortresses, and he’s winning. And these establishment banks, like the ones that I’m working for, really don’t get it, and they’re losing." I think that lodged in his mind. And Bannon, later on, when he got to Breitbart News, portrays himself in a political sense very much like Michael Milken portrayed himself in a financial sense back in the ’80s.

AMY GOODMAN: Went to jail, by the way, right? Of course, for people who don’t know, the younger set.

JOSHUA GREEN: Oh, yes, he went to jail, not a—yeah, not a minor footnote in Milken’s story. He was busted for insider trading and went to jail for a number of years. But I think Bannon liked the dark, outsider narrative that Milken told. And Milken kind of cultivated his own image, before he went to jail, as this guy who was storming the fortresses and was taking on the fattened, lazy, corrupt establishment, and thereby was doing something good. Bannon did the same thing at Breitbart News. The way he would talk about what he was doing was: "We’re taking on the establishments of both parties, the crony capitalists." So I think he learned a bit from Milken.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this story Joshua Green writes about in his book, which is titled Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. We’ll be back in a moment.

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