He might have lost a battle or two, but the war is not over for Steve Bannon. In one of his first interviews after his epic break with the president the former White House chief strategist discusses setbacks, goals and chances of the populist revolt in the US, Europe and globally.
While praising president Trump for his leadership and success he sees no wrongdoing on his side. "I have no self doubt" and "I would do it all the same" Bannon tells Urs Gehriger of the Swiss weekly DIE WELTWOCHE. Next week Steve Bannon will give his first ever public speech in Europe. The 1,500 tickets for the event in Zürich, Switzerland, were sold out almost overnight.
(Interview was recorded February 20th in New York)
You announce your speech in Zürich under the title: "The populist revolt and its global impact for Switzerland, Europe and the US". What is your agenda in Europe and for Europe?
The Italian elections are on March 4th. You see a populist uprising. You see a broad range all the way from the brotherhood of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) on the right to the Five Star movement, which I would say is a secular center left populist movement. All across Europe you see the fires of populism, which is basically the people want to take up more charge and control of their life, starting to catch on.
Do you see a common base of these movements?
Here is a common base: They are citizens of their countries. Just like in the United States. It's citizens wanting to get more control of their lives back. They want more responsible governments. They are tired of the "Party of Davos," these elites, they are detached. They want ultimate say over their lives. You see it whether it is in Hungary, in the Czech Republic, in France. Today in Germany, AfD's (Alternative for Germany) polling number is higher than SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) for the first time in history. So, this is not in any one location, not with any one people, it's pan-European. You see it in the United States. I would actually say that people haven't given enough consideration to the elections in South Korea a year ago. That was kind of the South Korean Brexit. The movement is global in nature. And it has been driven by citizens.
Why are you coming to Europe? Are you already in connection with some movements?
As it is a global movement I wish to learn. I hope to learn from all the people in Switzerland, from the different movements. I have spent a lot of time in Asia in the fall. I expect to spend a lot of time in Europe in spring and summer and also in Asia. I'm traveling the world just learning more, meeting more people in this populist, in this nationalist movement.
Since we have announced your event in Zürich, you have been the talk of the town. Some extreme left-wing groups have declared that they want to oppose your public speech, they want to stop it. Do you have a direct message for them?
Are they afraid of ideas? I think they have every right to protest. But are they trying to suppress free speech? Are they trying to suppress ideas? Look, the way we stay peaceful, the way the society moves forward is you have to have open and free debate. If they are afraid of ideas, particularly ideas that are based around giving more power back to the people, I think they are to start questioning why they are doing this. I have all confidence in the world that the event is going on as planned.
Let's focus on the populist movement in the U.S. This is after all your home base. We first met after the primaries in Alabama. With your candidate, Roy Moore, winning you were up in arms. You had planned an ambitious campaign to challenge the establishment Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with candidates - you called them insurgents - who ran on a populist, economic nationalist brand. You have been silent recently about this revolt. Is it still happening?
It is still happening. Let's look at these candidates. We have Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee. Just the other day Stephen Fincher, her opponent, quit. Look in Mississippi, Chris McDaniel might jump in the race with the incumbent. Look at Wisconsin, Kevin Nicholson is leading in the polls. In Arizona Kelli Ward and Sheriff Joe Arpaio combined have I think over 60 percent of the vote. In Nevada Danny Tarkanian on the internal polling is very competitive with Sen. Dean Heller. So, you are seeing it one place after the other. The five or six people I had are very competitive. I think that all of these people will actually end up winning the primaries and the Senate seats. The anti-establishment focus of the base hasn't changed. They still want to break the political class. And they may not be on the top of the news every day.
But remember, I don't really think much of the mainstream media. The mainstream media all focus on the gossip in the White House, who's in, who's out, it's almost like a high school cafeteria. Who's sitting with the cool kids and who's not. That's not particularly serious. That's why the Trump revolt caught them totally by surprise in 2016. Out there in the hinterland there is still a very strong anti-elitist movement.
You have been the prominent face of this movement. Over the past months you took some blows - defeat in Alabama, breach with Trump, leaving from Breitbart. The general view is: Without Bannon at the helm much of that anti-establishment organizational energy has disintegrated. Without you as a figurehead to mobilize and organize the revolt, where does that movement go?
I am organizing every day. My life has not changed. I'm doing the exact same work as I have done a month ago, talking to donors, talking to advocacy groups every day. So, we are building this movement every day. Maybe I'm not in the media as much as possible, but that doesn't mean that the movement is not getting built. The time that I think is appropriate to start gains from the media - I'm giving you an interview, I just gave an interview to Italian TV, I am coming over and doing an event in Switzerland and in other places - at that time you start to see that it is exposed. But that's not the point. The media is always running after the next, easy kind of gossipy hot thing. And I think that is missing the point what's going on. There is tremendous work to be done out there in the hinterland, to feed this anti-establishment movement.
How do you keep feeling the pulse with the forgotten men and women?
I meet them every day, either at events or have people in meetings. Here is how I don't take the pulse. I don't sit around and watch CNN, I don't sit around and watch MSNBC, I don't watch Fox. You've got to go out and do it. This is how I knew that Trump was going to win the primaries. I knew that Trump was going to win the elections. I told Trump 100 percent metaphysical certitude that you are going to win. Here's your problem: Your problem is you think of everything as a media person. You don't think about how the world really is. Here is how I don't take the pulse. I don't take the pulse reading the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the USA Today, or the op-ed sections of the Wall Street Journal. That's not the pulse. That's the Party of Davos talking to itself.
You took the pulse in Alabama. And you lost. So, people say …
Hang on a second …
What went wrong in Alabama where you supported a candidate, who was facing multiple allegations because sexual harassment?
The Republican establishment would give up a Senate seat. They would give up a Senate seat in order to keep their own control. They never wanted Roy Moore in the Senate. They're the ones with the Republican operatives that put out the negative information on him about pedophilia. They got in Tim Miller (a Republican campaign operative who reportedly pitched the original Washington Post story on that alleged Roy Moore engaged in sexual misconduct with multiple underage girls, edit.) to put it out. And then Sen. Shelby goes on national TV on Sunday and says 'I'm voting write-in.' There were 24,000 write-ins. The Republican establishment threw the elections to the Democrats. They would rather have a Democrat in there. Like I said from day one. They would rather be in control of a party in the minority, as long as they are in control.
I think that Alabama is a great lesson. Remember, Roy Moore was not my candidate. My candidate was Mo Brooks. He got defeated in the first round. I inherited Roy Moore as the anti-establishment candidate and I am very proud of the fact that he beat the establishment candidate Luther Strange. The establishment turned on Moore for one reason, because they'd rather not have a guy like Roy Moore in the Senate.
Supporters of the president insist that Trump still has a finger on the pulse. Does the president still speak for the forgotten men and women?
I think Donald Trump still very much does.
Although he challenged you in Alabama - and ended up losing both in the primaries and in the elections.
I think he would admit that if he were rethinking I'm not so sure you would back Luther Strange. I said from day one, he got some bad advice about this. Luther Strange got beat by 10 points. He wasn't even close particularly given the money. But Donald Trump very much has the finger on the pulse. He has done a good job on taxes, he did a good job across the board. I think he's definitely got his hand on pulse on of the people. He is willing to take risks, this whole thing on DACA was a real risk. I think he is doing a great job.
President Trump recently came to Switzerland and he met with the people that you call the "Party of Davos". Were you surprised that Trump attended the World Economic Forum?
No, I wasn't surprised that he came at all. I think he wanted to lay his case out for the United States of America.
Did he succeed?
I think he did a very good job talking about the investment opportunity, how America is open for business. Look, I'm a little more hardcore in this area. I would have probably thrown down a little harder on them. But I understand, the president is representing all the people. He gave a speech that talked about the robust and vibrant economy in America and how America is back. He was very articulate about nationalism, particularly economic nationalism, he might not have been as aggressive as I would have argued, but I think he did a good job. I think the speech was received well.
Some of your critics claim that you are an anti-Semite. What do you say?
This is complete nonsense. As executive chairman of Breitbart I launched the Breitbart Jerusalem news vertical, while making the site the leader in stories exposing the BDS movement (The boycott, divestment, sanctions movement works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law, edit.) and the effort in America to force Jewish students off college campuses.
You are an outspoken supporter of the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Why is that move important, and how instrumental were you as chief strategist to encourage the president to officially recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel?
Our relationship with the state of Israel is central to President Trump's national security strategy. I was proud to be part of the team that from day one advocated for fulfilling our campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel's capital of Jerusalem. In addition, it is imperative that we continue fighting Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS, designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and decertify or renegotiate the Iran deal.
When we look at the staff in the White House today it is hard to find a person who has voted for Trump.
That's not true, Stephen Miller is still there.
Right, Is Stephen Miller the only one left who holds up the flame of economic nationalism?
No, Peter Navarro is there, Andrew Bremberg (Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council). You have a lot of people working for Peter Navarro. (Navarro is an economist who currently serves as the Assistant to the President, Director of Trade and Industrial Policy, and the Director of the White House National Trade Council, edit.)
How important is Stephen Miller?
Stephen Miller is very important, he was important in the Trump campaign since the very beginning. Stephen Miller is a guy that is really the keeper of the flame. He worked for Jeff Sessions. He is a very smart guy. It's the first time in history you have both a head of policy, which he heads all domestic policy, and he's also the head speech writer. He really has President Trump's voice. He's done a great job and he's definitely keeper of the flame of economic nationalism.
The U.S. is heading for midterm elections this year. They tend to be politically perilous for a new president. You have almost 30 Republicans not seeking reelection.
I think it is 35 now.
Do you think Republicans are in trouble?
Historically every off-year election usually goes against the party in power. The average is 23 to 25 seats. So, it's always going to be tough. The headwind is always against the party in power. I think Trump's track record particularly in the economy and creating jobs are going to make the Republicans very competitive. That is against a really emboldened and energized Democratic base. This kind of 'time's up' movement has really gotten people very excited about the left. They're going to be tough to beat. This is going to be one of the most competitive and exciting midterm elections.
What do Republicans need to do to keep the majority in both houses?
The president has to talk about what he has accomplished. He has destroyed the physical caliphate of ISIS. He's got an economy that is growing more than 3 percent. He's creating 2 million jobs, he got manufacturing jobs, business confidence is at a 20 year high, black unemployment is at an all-time low, Hispanic unemployment is at a 25-year low, wages are increasing. All the economic news is very, very positive. All they have to do is to continue to reiterate what he has accomplished and what he is going to accomplish.
What do you see as key topics in the midterms?
Jobs. The economy. And immigration will be a big issue. President Trump reached out to the left with this whole thing on DACA on amnesty and he really met them more than half way. And they really slapped him in the face, they had no interest in discussing it. I think that's going to be on the ballot in 2018. I think that's really going to motivate the deplorables to come out and vote.
Just the other day Trump endorsed Mitt Romney who is running as Senator in Utah. Is it smart move to support Romney?
That's his political team. Look, Mitt Romney is going to win Utah. Everybody knows that. So, President Trump came to the calculation that it is better to support him and get Mitt Romney on board with the White House's package.
Trump's support for Romney seems to be part of a wider pattern. Trump is in support of many so called establishment Republicans.
There is no anti-establishment candidate in Utah. Look, he started to mend that relationship after the election and he took a hard look, and Mitt Romney had a hard look at Secretary of State. They put all the negative stuff behind them. Back then they buried the hatchet. I think that relationship is just evolving.
Following the embarrassing loss in Alabama, a deep red state, the president announced he would not be supporting insurgents seeking to challenge incumbent Republican members of Congress. ("I don't see that happening") Is the insurgency against establishment done and over?
I think it is state by state. He looks at the candidate. He wants people who are going to pass his agenda. I think he's going to make sure that he backs candidates that can do that. But I think many of these insurgent candidates believe in the Trump agenda. That's what his guidelines are. Do the support the Trump agenda?
You have declared war upon McConnell.
He took up the challenge. And frankly speaking, he seems to have won that war. Trump teamed up with him and won some victories.
Mitch McConnell may have won a battle or two, but he hasn't won the war. I think what he did in Alabama is a loss for Mitch McConnell, it's a pyrrhic victory. Mitch McConnell gave up a seat and showed everybody, he's prepared to give up a Senate seat to keep his own power in the Senate. We have not finished with Mitch McConnell. I'm a honey badger, I'm that critter that keeps on coming, so it's not done. By the way, the struggle with Mitch McConnell is the top of the first inning.
The biggest victory of Donald Trump so far was the tax reform. And he has scored it together with Mitch McConnell, a politician you called an enemy of Trump's agenda, and a swamp creature.
He had to do it. Mitch McConnell is the majority leader of the Senate. It had a lot of Donald Trump in it. I think the spending bill, people in the base think the spending bill is spending too much money. They understand why it had to get done. So, look, Mitch McConnell is the majority leader but it's very interesting. For Mitch McConnell - when I left in August Mitch McConnell was barely speaking to the president. Of how much Mitch McConnell has come to the president's side to pass things Trump wanted to pass, that's because pressure was put on Mitch McConnell to get his act together. Mitch McConnell's candidate losing in Alabama. Mitch McConnell's candidate lost the first time. This was Luther Strange. His candidate was never Roy Moore. His candidate was the Democrat. And he showed that by sending Shelby out there to talk about the write-in votes. So, he gave up a Senate seat to keep his own control. Like I said, there is a long way to go in the war against Mitch McConnell.
The past few months you were on a pretty wild roller coaster giving congressional testimony, having a meeting with special prosecutor Robert Mueller, the public beating from the president, the losing executive chairmanship at Breitbart. Have you had any moments of self doubt?
A common held view about you …
"A common held view", that sounds like fake news.
... A common view is, I am sure you heard it before, that your personal ego got in your way, that you placed personal gain in front of personal loyalty. Do you think there is any truth in this?
Who says that. Tell me one person.
It's in the news everywhere.
Name me one person you said it. See this is why people don't believe in news anymore.
The president said it. In reactions to your statements in the Wolff book.
The book was authorized. Have you read Jennifer Jacobs at Bloomberg and her analysis of that?
Then I can't understand how you can ask a question like that. Go back and read Jennifer Jacobs.
What is it about?
Go read it then ask the question. I'm not going to answer this question if you haven't done the basic research on the book. She wrote a definitive analysis of how the book is an authorized book.
… I'm not answering any question. You read and I'll answer all your questions.
I'm gonna read it tonight and I am going to ask you tomorrow.
You read it and I gonna answer you tomorrow. You gotta do your homework my friend. It's only because I like you so much that I am doing this.
I'm so honored.
I know. We're going to make Urs great again.
After having read the article I went back to Bannon the next day to continue the interview. But he refused to answer any question related to the book "Fire and Fury" despite of his promise.
The article Bannon pointed out does not state that the book was authorized. Instead, Jacobs reports that staffers were authorized to cooperate with Wolff. "Senior-most staff believed that Hicks, one of Trump's longest-serving aides who has acted as a gatekeeper for his interview requests, had authorized their cooperation with Wolff. They recalled that she encouraged them to engage with the author as long as they made positive comments. Hicks hadn't greenlit the book, people familiar with her handling of the matter said -- but nor did she immediately put up a stop sign."
The book provoked a furious reaction from Trump. He broke with Bannon in public, called him "Sloppy Steve" and said: "Steve lost his mind."
You said, you don't regret anything. But would you have done something differently in the White House, or after?
Zero, nothing. I would do all the same.
Reince Priebus was quoted the other day.
Yes, on a book on the chief of staffs. ("The Gatekeepers" by Chris Whipple, edit.)
He writes that reports of chaos and disorganization inside the White House through the first months of President Trump's administration are understated. Priebus wrote "take everything you've heard and multiply it by 50". Do you agree with that?
No. Not at all. I think Reince was a great chief of staff. I think he did a terrific job. I don't think it was that much chaos. If he was talking it was probably emotional. I think it was actually there was less chaos under Reince than there is today. But I think the opposition party mainstream media continues to dump on Reince. I think did a terrific job and he was a great chief of staff.
You told me at our last meeting that you admired Kelly. You left the White House soon after he took office. What do you think about his conduct as chief of staff?
I think it has been fine. There is always some issues. I was making the point that Reince gets blamed. I don't think Reince is that out of control. I think Reince did a pretty good job as chief of staff. Given… the president has his own style.
The Trump administration was just shaken by the Rob Porter domestic violence scandal. Kelly gave a full-throated defense of Rob Porter. Do you think that General Kelly mishandled that?
That was a big mistake. But you can't condemn the guy just for one mistake. I think Kelly has done a pretty good job. But Reince is getting way too much criticism. The media just jumped on Reince. And the media loved Kelly.
You got along well with him?
With Kelly, yeah.
And with Priebus?
With Priebus I am very close. I still talk to him all the time. I like Reince a lot. And Kelly is a good guy, very good man.
Interesting, because Priebus is known as a mainstream representative of the establishment.
We couldn't have won it if Reince and I hadn't come together. He was very important in the campaign. Bringing in the RNC. He has a great relationship with the RNC. He was the very first guy I called when taking over the campaign.
There was an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal…
The Wall Street Journal, my favorite (smiles)
Rebekah Mercer wrote that you took Breitbart "in the wrong direction." Quote: "Stephen Bannon, its former chairman, took Breitbart in the wrong direction. Now that Mr. Bannon has resigned, Breitbart has the opportunity to refine its message and expand its influence." Do you agree with that?
Obviously, I don't. I think Breitbart went in the right direction. That's why it is the powerhouse it is. You read that op-ed and you look at the bottom, she talks about the death threats to her children and her family and her personally. I think people who have supported conservative causes and conservative news organizations are coming under tremendous attacks. And for her to go write something where she has to talk about the death threats says a lot about the opposition. And talks also about the opposition party media fuels kind of contempt on the left for people. I think her thing was very heartfelt. She is a terrific person. I know her very well. I obviously fundamentally disagree that Breitbart went the wrong direction. I think Breitbart is heading in the right direction today That's the reason it is such powerful news organization is exactly because of the direction we decided to take.
Why did the Mercers pull their millions from Breitbart?
No, no, no. You read it wrong. The Mercers put $10 million in the company seven years ago. They haven't put another penny in since. She is not taking out the money. The money has been spent. She sits on the board but she has no editorial control, as she said. No, look, if somebody has to say I've gotten death threats for my family, my children, myself, I think that is a pretty big deal. I believe this is something she had to do. I think she did it very smartly. It doesn't matter to me. I know the direction, with the editorial team, it wasn't just me. I'm not the grand poobah, this genius, it was a team effort just like anything else. Read the Harvard study that talks about the political impact that Breitbart had. It had a massive political impact. That was because of human action. I think it pointed in the right direction. Clearly the results are there. And I think it is still heading in the right direction today.
You recently met with the special prosecutor Robert Mueller behind closed doors. Do you think it was a mistake to call in a special prosecutor?
I'm on the record saying, if you fire [former FBI director James] Comey you are gonna get a special prosecutor. It's not whether it is a mistake or not a mistake. It just is. I said from day one. If Comey gets fired, they appoint a special prosecutor. They fired Comey and they get a special prosecutor. Mueller is what he his. They took the action, they got Mueller. To me that is pretty straight forward.
What it is like when you sit face to face with the special prosecutor?
I can't talk about that part. Let's say it's not as intense as this.
We have to stop it then. Just a few more questions. At the Golden Globes Award ceremony the attendees wore black to support the Time's Up initiative. Watching the show you made a very interesting remark, as Joshua Green in his new preview to his book writes. You said "It's a Cromwell moment!" What did you mean by this?
[Oliver] Cromwell in the English civil war. The Cromwell people were the puritans. You look at the Golden Globes. All these women wore these long black dresses, they were really dour, it really wasn't entertainment. There was a lot of anger built up. I'm not questioning why the anger got built up, because of the #MeToo movement.
But I thought it was a very important moment in American politics. I think you are seeing the beginning of a real movement that has real meaning to it. I don't necessarily agree with all of that but I can understand where it comes from. I was just making an observation that that's important. I think people miss it. I think they focused on Oprah's talk that night. It was much bigger than Oprah. And I think it is going to be the beginning of a major political effort in the United States and I think people on the populist right ought to at least pay enough respect to study it.
You said it is the end of patriarchy.
Yes, I think it could be. I think their effort is to end the patriarchy. I think they call it power dynamism or power.
And much bigger than the Tea Party.
It didn't say much bigger. I said it could be. The same beginning you had at the Tea Party, that anger that can get things rolling you see on the Time's Up movement.
Now, the problem with the Tea party was, it didn't have one big leader. It disintegrated and disappeared.
I disagree with that. Europeans all want to go to a one big leader. No, the power of the Tea Party was distributed leadership. I think there is no one leader in the Time's up movement. It has distributed leadership. That is its power. It is a self-organizing effort and it doesn't need one leader. I think if it had one big leader when this Tea Party populist movement started building, that person came at a time of the presidential election, and that became the leader of the movement. That was Donald Trump. Right? And he has taken it to the next level. The thing went for years and years it was organically building. The same thing is going to happen to the Time's up movement.
So, you don't see one figure leading and it is not important as you say?
No. In fact it would be detrimental to its growth if it had one.
To wrap this up, let's take the global view of the populist movements.
They are all different. The regime in Beijing says it's socialism with Chinese characteristics. I would say it's populism with whatever characteristics of the country it takes place. Hungarian, Italian, Swiss, American, each one is different. Each one is based upon on the concept of the citizen of that country. And that's what you are seeing. They want to take control of their country back for their citizens. Each country has got different issues. The commonalty is that they don't want the elites, particularly in Brussels or Washington, D.C., or places that rule them making decision. They want to make decisions themselves.
Why do they occur all now almost simultaneously across the globe?
I think it is the effects of globalism. It's a convergence of the effects of globalism plus the ability to leave traditional media behind so people can communicate with each other through Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat. And sites like Breitbart. And newspapers like yourself. You are seeing a renaissance of conservative media, media that is helping the populist movement getting their ideas out there. So, I think you see a conversion of economic factors by the globalists. The elites just don't care. They haven't cared. So, I think it's a natural reaction of people to kind of revolt like this.
This conversation has been edited and condensed