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‘You Got to Be the Last Guy He Talks To.’ The Rise and Fall of Trump Adviser Steve Bannon

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After Donald Trump won the U.S. election in November 2016, some Republicans hoped that the new President would mellow in office and moderate his hardline campaign positions. Steve Bannon saw it as his job to make sure that didn’t happen.

Bannon, a former investment banker and right-wing documentary filmmaker who served as one of Trump’s principal advisers during the final months of his campaign, moved into the West Wing in January 2017, taking over an office at a crucial hallway intersection steps from the Oval Office. His perch allowed him to see nearly everyone visiting then-chief of staff Reince Priebus on one side, and Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner on the other.

Bannon’s official new title was chief strategist, and he saw himself as besieged by ideological rivals trying to slow-walk Trump’s controversial campaign promises to build a border wall, gut trade deals, and ban Muslims from entering the country. His ascent was seen by many as bringing the fringe voices of white nationalists and the alt-right directly into the West Wing. He spent hours on calls with GOP donors and reporters painting Priebus as beholden to the old Republican establishment and Kushner as a Democrat in Trump’s house. He lasted seven months, before being pushed out for leaking about palace intrigue and refusing to cede access and control to Trump’s second chief of staff, John Kelly.

Bannon’s time in the White House may have been short, but it was influential. Within a few weeks of moving in, Bannon helped launch Trump on the hardline policy path he has rarely deviated from since. Bannon, along with senior advisor Stephen Miller, pushed for the hasty freeze of the U.S. refugee program and the halt in immigration from seven majority Muslim countries, moves that were later challenged in court and required revisions. He kept a white board on the wall next to his desk and put green check marks next to actions that weakened international trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and North American Free Trade Agreement.

It is quite a fall, then, to go from viewing himself as keeper of the President’s to-do list to being arrested by federal agents three years later. Bannon was taken into custody on Thursday, accused of helping orchestrate a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors who contributed $25 million to an online crowdfunding campaign to build a privately funded wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York alleged that Bannon had falsely told donors he would not be compensated for his work on the “We Build the Wall” project, and charged him with counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Bannon was reportedly arrested off the coast of Connecticut aboard the yacht of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman.

Bannon pleaded not guilty on Thursday and was released on a $5 million bond. He won’t be allowed to board private jets or boats without permission from a federal judge and must restrict his travel to New York and Washington, D.C. Bannon and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

On Friday morning, Bannon was back on the air of his podcast, “War Room: Pandemic,” saying that his arrest was “a political hit job” and an attempt to silence proponents of building a border wall. He did not address directly the charge that he defrauded donors. “All these charges are nonsense,” Bannon said into a large radio microphone, wearing his signature costume: two black collared shirts. “This is to stop and intimidate people who want to talk about the wall.”

Trump distanced himself from Bannon’s wall project on Thursday, saying he didn’t like the project and thought it was being done “for showboating reasons.” Trump said he feels “very badly” for his former adviser, but added, “I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time.” It was “inappropriate” to be trying to fund a wall with private funds, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during a visit of Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.

A White House statement sought to further distance the President from Bannon. “President Trump has not been involved with Steve Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the Administration, and he does not know the people involved with this project,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. One advisory board member of the private wall project, Kris Kobach, the former secretary of state of Kansas, told the New York Times last year that the effort had Trump’s blessing.

Bannon’s path to a desk down the hall from the Oval Office was as circuitous as one of his lengthy tangents that often veer into the history of Nazi propaganda or the Roman Empire. Bannon grew up in a family of Irish-Catholic Democrats in Richmond, Virginia. His father was a telephone lineman who later moved into management. Bannon served as a Navy officer and later got a degree in national security studies from Georgetown and an M.B.A. from Harvard. He eventually went to work for Goldman Sachs before breaking out to start a boutique investment firm in Beverly Hills that specialized in entertainment deals. In the early 2000s, he began producing documentaries that lashed out at political and financial elites and eventually took over Breitbart News, a website that Bannon once described as a platform for the alt-right, a movement that has embraced racist views and anti-semitism.

It was a tweet that brought Bannon and Trump together. In July 2015, weeks after Donald Trump announced he would run for President, Steve Bannon wrote on Breitbart that Trump’s book, “Time to Get Tough,” was a “blockbuster policy manifesto.” Trump tweeted a link to the story. After that, Bannon repeatedly interviewed Trump on his radio show, and a year later, Bannon was hired as chief executive of the campaign.

Bannon didn’t have to bring Trump his ideas on trade imbalances, harsh immigration policies and stripping away environmental regulations — Trump already had them. The two men found each other, and Bannon brought a propagandist’s sensibility to the fight. They both embraced a tactic in Washington of not backing down in the face of flaming criticism and not apologizing if they landed on the wrong side of the truth. Bannon was fond of likening himself and Trump to honey badgers who don’t relent even after being stung by bees or bitten by snakes.

When Trump won, Bannon asked to be named chief strategist in the White House and for the first few months of the Trump administration, Bannon had broad privileges to attend meetings in the Oval Office. The Anti-Defamation League called Bannon’s promotion a “sad day” and described his tenure at Breitbart as presiding over “the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate-crimes, described Bannon at the time as the “main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.” Former Ohio governor John Kasich’s chief of staff John Weaver said Bannon would be footsteps from the Oval Office and represents the “racist, fascist extreme right.”

In the White House, Bannon was one of the few in Trump’s orbit who rarely wore a suit and tie, often opting for a rumpled blazer and layers of dark collared shirts. Bannon left the white House in August 2017, in the wake of a firestorm over Trump saying “both sides” had responsibility for deadly violence during clashes over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA. Former White House aide Cliff Sims wrote in his book “Team of Vipers” that Bannon was the only one in the White House “entirely comfortable” and “thrilled, really” with Trump’s remarks. Bannon clashed with Trump’s second chief of staff John Kelly over Trump’s response and other issues, and Trump had come to believe Bannon was regularly leaking to reporters about policy fights inside the West Wing.

Most presidents have an early ideological cheerleader like Bannon, says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University and author of “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Bannon played a role for Trump that was similar to how David Axelrod was able to help Barack Obama define a new Democratic coalition, and how Karl Rove helped George W. Bush expand on his base in Texas to win the White House, says Zelizer. Bannon saw how Trump fit into the Republican party and was able to articulate how Trump’s anti-establishment populism and his restrictionist ideas on trade and immigration, once seen as fringe movements, could be the new GOP orthodoxy.

“He had a feel for the Republican party and how it had changed over time,” Zelizer says.“He played an important role in not just helping Trump, but in helping Republicans see why Trump was the right candidate for the party at that moment,” says Zelizer.

But one way Bannon was different than those close advisors, Zelizer says, was his active desire to sow chaos in government and erode the administrative state. Bannon’s arrest comes on the same day that a federal judge blocked Trump’s latest effort to protect his tax returns from being handed over to prosecutors in New York as part of an investigation into Trump’s business practices. Trump’s lawyers are expected to appeal the decision. Ultimately it isn’t surprising that another person in Trump’s orbit would find themselves in legal trouble, Zelizer notes. “This is someone who was comfortable in the world of Trump where the lines of ethics are beyond blurry,” he says.

Once outside the White House, Bannon continued to take aim at the Republican establishment. He has long seen himself as a revolutionary wanting to crash the existing political order and undermine the clubby circle of elites, with targets ranging from the Clintons to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Over the past few years, his support from major Republican donors waned and his direct influence over Trump dropped off. Bannon started a podcast about the COVID-19 pandemic that focused on China’s initial coverup of the virus, and he’s been a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party. Trump has said Bannon’s been a more effective advocate for him since he left the White House. “Actually, Steve Bannon’s been much better not being involved. He says, ‘the greatest president ever.’” Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace during an interview on July 19.

But even Bannon knows he lost sway and influence the moment he stepped out of the West Wing. “Trump is always influenced by the last guy he talks to,” Bannon told TIME during an interview at the dining table in his Capitol Hill townhouse in January. “If you want to influence Trump, you got to be the last guy he talks to,” Bannon said. That hasn’t been Bannon for years.

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