Steve Bannon has been in the news a bit lately because of the federal criminal charges brought by prosecutors in my former office. Anne Milgram and I have discussed those public charges at some length, but the recent news calls to mind my personal encounters with the controversial figure.
I have met Steve Bannon twice.
The first time was on November 30, 2016. It was not long after the election and you may recall that President-elect Trump asked to meet with me to ask me to stay on as U.S. Attorney. When I arrived at Trump Tower, there was the usual phalanx of journalists in the lobby, penned in by a velvet rope. As I waited for the gold-plated elevator car to come, one reporter shouted, “Mr. Bharara, are you here to serve a subpoena?!” People laughed, as I ignored the question.
When I arrived at the 26th floor, I was informed that Trump was running late. I learned later that he was tardy because he was receiving a national security briefing. I was brought into the Trump office, where I expected to wait alone. Instead, I was kept company by two men. One was Jared Kushner. The other was Steve Bannon. Both men were cordial and made small talk. What I remember most was their ebullience at Trump’s victory. Once Trump appeared, both men faded into the background.
My second encounter with Bannon was more revelatory. It came almost three years later, in 2019, on a day that was fairly eventful. My day began with a Stay Tuned interview with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who had just completed a new movie. About whom? None other than Steve Bannon. When I asked Morris why he had chosen Bannon as his subject, he said he found the man intriguing: “Political guy, bad guy, possibly crazy. I do respond to that because I too might possibly be crazy.”
Later that day, the U.S. House of Representatives voted formally to proceed with an impeachment inquiry. Every Republican voted no; all but two Democrats voted yes. A significant day in history. CNN scheduled me to offer analysis that evening, both on Wolf Blitzer’s early evening show and on Anderson Cooper’s.
Oh, also it was Halloween.
A bit before 8 pm, I wandered into the makeup room in Hudson Yards where CNN’s New York studios had recently moved. Anderson Cooper, seated in one of the chairs, saw me and motioned me over. He said in a low voice, by way of warning, “Preet, just FYI, Steve Bannon is in the green room.” I had at least 20 minutes to kill and nowhere else to go really. I also saw no reason to avoid Bannon, so I headed to the green room, where I saw him and one of his colleagues quietly chatting in the corner.
They greeted me and we shook hands. Bannon asked me what I was up to these days, and I said your ears must have been ringing this morning because I spent an hour discussing the new documentary about you. He smiled a big smile, obviously tickled. We exchanged some other pleasantries. All very cordial.
Then, perhaps because of the cordiality, I decided to put a question to him, in as good natured a way as I could. Because what the hell. I said, “Hey, Steve. Can I ask you a question? Because I can’t figure it out. Why does the President lie. So much. About everything. Constantly.”
Bannon didn’t take offense. He smiled.
I went on to give one of the stupidest examples of presidential mendacity that was on my mind a lot at the time. It was Trump’s claim that many parents of American soldiers killed in action in Korea would tearfully thank him for helping bring their remains back after so many decades. The average age of a parent of a soldier killed in action would have been about 114. Just a lie. And an unnecessary one.
And I repeated, in an earnest tone, “Why does he just lie all the time? Explain it to me.”
Bannon, again, took no offense. And he offered no defense. His response? “You mean like the time he said I begged for my job like a dog?” He responded to my question by offering an example of a presidential lie about himself. He otherwise had no answer. He just shrugged and commiserated.
Alone in a green room, with cameras at a safe distance, Bannon did not defend Trump as a truth-teller, did not vouch for him, did not argue for him. Minutes later, on live national television, he would boast about the “War Room” he was setting up for the sole purpose of militant defense of presidential conduct in the Ukraine affair. But here, pre-game, just between us, he essentially confessed that the truth about Trump is that he lies.
There’s one other thing I remember about our exchange. At some point, we turned to the substance of the revelations about Trump’s actions underlying the impeachment effort. I made some strident point about abuse of power. Bannon paused, almost bemused, and gave me a look that said, “Hey, it’s just us guys in the green room.” I persisted in my point. He said, surprised, “Oh wait, you actually believe that.” It was a statement, not a question. And with that statement, he made me understand something.
In his mind, we could be cordial and pleasant in the green room, because what we did on TV was something of an act. Privately, he could admit the president is a liar. Publicly, he defended him to the hilt. And somehow I think he assumed that other people were acting their parts too; that I was playing the role of presidential critic but actually knew better. People often think others are like them. They are wrong.
I’ve thought a lot about Bannon’s reaction that day: “Oh wait, you actually believe that.” It seemed quaint to him. I’ve thought also about all the other Trump defenders. Some of them are truly in the president’s thrall, no doubt. But others, not just Bannon, but also Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Kellyanne Conway and Kayleigh McEnany, are all actors. Pre-Trump they all lambasted him, mocked him, denigrated him. They are playing sycophantic roles now for personal and political interest. They are worse than the true believers, because they know better. Or at least used to.
As for Steve Bannon, a jury may ultimately decide whether he is guilty of specific federal conspiracy crimes. But, to me, the record is already clear that he is a fraud.
On today’s episode of Stay Tuned, Preet speaks with Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s longtime chief political correspondent, about the still-unfolding Republican National Convention.
Preet and Balz assess the effectiveness of the week’s speakers, and they linger on a somewhat surprising theme emerging from the convention: the attempts to humanize the President by testifying to his empathy. The convention has seesawed back-and-forth between that softer message, and the more typical Trumpian themes of law, order, and hardline conservatism — sometimes all in the same speech (see: Rep. Jim Jordan).
Over the first two nights, speeches from Sen. Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — two high-profile Republicans who have managed to remain independent of Trump without becoming targets of his public scorn — sought to broaden their party’s base with a more inclusive message than the President’s.
In a political moment defined by issues of race (and just a day after yet another police shooting of a Black man, this time in Kenosha, WI), Scott and Haley, two people of color who have reached the highest levels of Republican politics, attempted to recast their party as one of inclusivity. And less than a week after Joe Biden called for “doing the hard work to root out systemic racism,” Haley and Scott emphasized their views of America’s progress on racial justice. Scott said:
We live in a world that only wants you to believe in the bad news…racially, economically and culturally-polarizing news. The truth is, our nation’s arc always bends back towards fairness. We are not fully where we want to be…but thank God we are not where we used to be!
Haley, who was Governor of South Carolina at the time of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, made a sweeping argument about American exceptionalism and racial reconciliation. In the days following that shooting, in which a white supremacist killed nine African-American worshippers at the Mother Emanuel Church, Haley led a successful effort to remove the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol. But, as Preet and Balz discuss on Stay Tuned, in her speech, Haley neglected to actually say the words “Confederate Flag”:
After that horrific tragedy, we didn’t turn against each other. We came together, Black and white, Democrat and Republican. Together we made the hard choices needed to heal, and removed a divisive symbol peacefully and respectfully.
Race wasn’t the only subject that Republicans sought to frame in a new light. The RNC’s speakers appeared to be trying out new, sometimes conflicting, messages around the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue over which the President has received significant criticism. In the hours after National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow spoke about the pandemic in the past tense (“Then came a once in 100 year pandemic. It was awful…but presidential leadership came with an extraordinary rescue”), Melania Trump instead led with empathy. In a speech delivered before a small crowd at the recently-renovated White House Rose Garden, she said:
I want to acknowledge the fact that since March, our lives have changed drastically. The invisible enemy, Covid-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us. My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering. I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless. I want you to know you are not alone.
By Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s clean-up hitter, was back to playing some of the Trump administration’s greatest hits. In a speech that touched on everything from the President’s economic record (“We built the greatest economy in the world. We made America great again”) to foreign policy (“American armed forces took the last inch of ISIS territory, crushed their caliphate and took down their leader”), Pence closed by emphasizing a message of law and order. The same day that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers accepted federal assistance to quell violence in Kenosha stemming from Sunday’s police shooting, Pence defended law enforcement:
[T]oo many heroes have died defending our freedom to see Americans strike each other down. We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color. President Trump and I know that the men and women who put on the uniform of law enforcement are the best of us. Every day, when they walk out that door, they consider our lives more important than their own.
Heading into the final night of the RNC, what is your reaction to the Convention? Which speeches have stood out to you? Has anything struck you as particularly effective or compelling?
Let us know your thoughts by writing to us at [email protected], or reply to this email.
*To listen to Insider content on your favorite podcast app, follow these instructions*
— Listen to this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, “Reacting to the RNC.” Preet is joined by Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s chief political correspondent, and Brenda Berkman, the first female firefighter in the history of the New York City Fire Department. And don’t forget to check out the Insider bonus material.
— Listen to this week’s episode of CAFE Insider, “DeJoy, Bannon, Durham: Mail, Jail, Stale?” where Preet and Anne break down Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s testimony on Capitol Hill, the latest in Steve Bannon’s indictment, and the first conviction in John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe.
— Listen to former RNC Chairman Michael Steele on the latest episode of Words Matter with Katie Barlow and Joe Lockhart.
— And look out for the latest episode of Cyber Space, hosted by John Carlin and featuring Facebook’s Monika Bickert, which drops Friday morning
That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.
— Edited by Tamara Sepper
The CAFE Team:
Tamara Sepper, Adam Waller, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Calvin Lord, David Tatasciore, Matthew Billy, and Nat Weiner