Authors: Michael Wolff
In a continuing sign of Trump’s
effect—his speeches inspiring joy or horror—witnesses would describe his reception at the CIA as either a Beatles-like emotional outpouring or a response so confounded and appalled that, in the seconds after he finished, you could hear a pin drop.
teve Bannon was the first Trump senior staffer in the White House after Trump was sworn in. On the inauguration march, he had grabbed the newly appointed deputy chief of staff, Katie Walsh, Reince Priebus’s deputy at the RNC, and together they had peeled off to inspect the now vacant West Wing. The carpet had been shampooed, but little else had changed. It was a warren of tiny offices in need of paint, not rigorously cleaned on a regular basis, the décor something like an admissions office at a public university. Bannon claimed the nondescript office across from the much grander chief of staff’s suite, and he immediately requisitioned the white boards on which he intended to chart the first hundred days of the Trump administration. And right away he began moving furniture out. The point was to leave no room for anyone to sit. There were to be no meetings, at least no meetings where people could get comfortable. Limit discussion. Limit debate. This was war. This was a war room.
Many who had worked with Bannon on the campaign and through the transition shortly noticed a certain change. Having achieved one goal, he was clearly on to another. An intense man, he was suddenly at an even higher level of focus and determination.
“What’s up with Steve?” Kushner began to ask. And then, “Is something wrong with Steve?” And then finally, “I don’t understand. We were so close.”
Within the first week, Bannon seemed to have put away the camaraderie of Trump Tower—including a willingness to talk at length at any hour—and become far more remote, if not unreachable. He was “focused on my shit.” He was just getting things done. But many felt that getting things done was was more about him hatching plots against them. And certainly, among his basic character notes, Steve Bannon was a plotter. Strike before being struck. Anticipate the moves of others—counter them before they can make their moves. To him this was seeing things ahead, focusing on a set of goals. The first goal was the election of Donald Trump, the second the staffing of the Trump government. Now it was capturing the soul of the Trump White House, and he understood what others did not yet: this would be a mortal competition.
* * *
In the early days of the transition, Bannon had encouraged the Trump team to read David Halberstam’s
The Best and the Brightest
. (One of the few people who seem actually to have taken him up on this reading assignment was Jared Kushner.) “A very moving experience reading this book. It makes the world clear, amazing characters and all true,” Bannon enthused.
This was a personal bit of branding—Bannon made sure to exhibit the book to many of the liberal reporters he was courting. But he was also trying to make a point, an important one considering the slapdash nature of the transition team’s staffing protocols: be careful who you hire.
Halberstam’s book, published in 1972, is a Tolstoyan effort to understand how great figures of the academic, intellectual, and military world who had served during the Kennedy and Johnson years had so grievously misapprehended the nature of the Vietnam War and mishandled its prosecution.
The Best and the Brightest
was a cautionary tale about the 1960s establishment—the precursor of the establishment that Trump and Bannon were now so aggressively challenging.
But the book also served as a reverential guide to the establishment. For the 1970s generation of future policy experts, would-be world leaders, and Ivy League journalists aiming for big-time careers—though it was Bannon’s generation, he was far outside this self-selected elite circle—
The Best and the Brightest
was a handbook about the characteristics of
American power and the routes to it. Not just the right schools and right backgrounds, although that, too, but the attitudes, conceits, affect, and language that would be most conducive to finding your way into the American power structure. Many saw the book as a set of prescriptions about how to get ahead, rather than, as intended, what not to do when you are ahead.
The Best and the Brightest
described the people who should be in power. A college-age Barack Obama was smitten with the book, as was Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton.
Halberstam’s book defined the look and feel of White House power. His language, resonant and imposing and, often, boffo pompous, had set the tone for the next half century of official presidential journalism. Even scandalous or unsuccessful tenants of the White House were treated as unique figures who had risen to the greatest heights after mastering a Darwinian political process. Bob Woodward, who helped bring Nixon down—and who himself became a figure of unchallengeable presidential mythmaking—wrote a long shelf of books in which even the most misguided presidential actions seemed part of an epochal march of ultimate responsibility and life-and-death decision making. Only the most hardhearted reader would not entertain a daydream in which he or she was not part of this awesome pageant.
Steve Bannon was such a daydreamer.
* * *
But if Halberstam defined the presidential mien, Trump defied it—and defiled it. Not a single attribute would place him credibly in the revered circle of American presidential character and power. Which was, in a curious reversal of the book’s premise, just what created Steve Bannon’s opportunity.
The less likely a presidential candidate is, the more unlikely, and, often, inexperienced, his aides are—that is, an unlikely candidate can attract only unlikely aides, as the likely ones go to the more likely candidates. When an unlikely candidate wins—and as outsiders become ever more the quadrennial flavor of the month, the more likely an unlikely candidate is to get elected—ever more peculiar people fill the White House. Of course, a point about the Halberstam book and about
the Trump campaign was that the most obvious players make grievous mistakes, too. Hence, in the Trump narrative, unlikely players far outside the establishment hold the true genius.
Still, few have been more unlikely than Steve Bannon.
At sixty-three, Bannon took his first formal job in politics when he joined the Trump campaign. Chief Strategist—his title in the new administration—was his first job not just in the federal government but in the public sector. (
scoffed Roger Stone, who, before Bannon, had been one of Trump’s chief strategists.) Other than Trump himself, Bannon was certainly the oldest inexperienced person ever to work in the White House.
It was a flaky career that got him here.
Catholic school in Richmond, Virginia. Then a local college, Virginia Tech. Then seven years in the Navy, a lieutenant on ship duty and then in the Pentagon. While on active duty, he got a master’s degree at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, but then he washed out of his naval career. Then an MBA from Harvard Business School. Then four years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs—his final two years focusing on the media industry in Los Angeles—but not rising above a midlevel position.
In 1990, at the age of thirty-seven, Bannon entered peripatetic entre-preneurhood under the auspices of Bannon & Co., a financial advisory firm to the entertainment industry. This was something of a hustler’s shell company, hanging out a shingle in an industry with a small center of success and concentric rings radiating out of rising, aspiring, falling, and failing strivers. Bannon & Co., skirting falling and failing, made it to aspiring by raising small amounts of money for independent film projects—none a hit.
Bannon was rather a movie figure himself. A type. Alcohol. Bad marriages. Cash-strapped in a business where the measure of success is excesses of riches. Ever scheming. Ever disappointed.
For a man with a strong sense of his own destiny, he tended to be hardly noticed. Jon Corzine, the former Goldman chief and future United States senator and governor of New Jersey, climbing the Goldman ranks when Bannon was at the firm, was unaware of Bannon. When Bannon
was appointed head of the Trump campaign and became an overnight press sensation—or question mark—his credentials suddenly included a convoluted story about how Bannon & Co. had acquired a stake in the megahit show
and hence its twenty-year run of residual profits. But none of the Seinfeld principals, creators, or producers seem ever to have heard of him.
Mike Murphy, the Republican media consultant who ran Jeb Bush’s PAC and became a leading anti-Trump movement figure, has the vaguest recollection of Bannon’s seeking PR services from Murphy’s firm for a film Bannon was producing a decade or so ago. “I’m told he was in the meeting, but I honestly can’t get a picture of him.”
magazine, dwelling on the Bannon enigma—one that basically translated to: How is it that the media has been almost wholly unaware of someone who is suddenly among the most powerful people in government?—tried to trace his steps in Hollywood and largely failed to find him. The
traced his many addresses to no clear conclusion, except a suggestion of possible misdemeanor voter fraud.
In the midnineties, he inserted himself in a significant role into Biosphere 2, a project copiously funded by Edward Bass, one of the Bass family oil heirs, about sustaining life in space, and dubbed by
one of the hundred worst ideas of the century—a rich man’s folly. Bannon, having to find his opportunities in distress situations, stepped into the project amid its collapse only to provoke further breakdown and litigation, including harassment and vandalism charges.
After the Biosphere 2 disaster, he participated in raising financing for a virtual currency scheme (MMORPGs, or MMOs) called Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE). This was a successor company to Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), a dot-com burnout, whose principals included the former child star Brock Pierce (
The Mighty Ducks
) who went on to be the founder of IGE, but was then pushed out. Bannon was put in as CEO, and the company was subsumed by endless litigation.
Distress is an opportunistic business play. But some distress is better than others. The kinds of situations available to Bannon involved managing
conflict, nastiness, and relative hopelessness—in essence managing and taking a small profit on dwindling cash. It’s a living at the margins of people who are making a much better living. Bannon kept trying to make a killing but never found the killing sweet spot.
Distress is also a contrarian’s game. And the contrarian’s impulse—equal parts personal dissatisfaction, general resentment, and gambler’s instinct—started to ever more strongly fuel Bannon. Part of the background for his contrarian impulse lay in an Irish Catholic union family, Catholic schools, and three unhappy marriages and bad divorces (journalists would make much of the recriminations in his second wife’s divorce filings).
Not so long ago, Bannon might have been a recognizably modern figure, something of a romantic antihero, an ex-military and up-from-the-working-class guy, striving, through multiple marriages and various careers, to make it, but never finding much comfort in the establishment world, wanting to be part of it and wanting to blow it up at the same time—a character for Richard Ford, or John Updike, or Harry Crews. An American man’s story. But now such stories have crossed a political line. The American man story is a right-wing story. Bannon found his models in political infighters like Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove. All were larger-than-life American characters doing battle with conformity and modernity, relishing ways to violate liberal sensibilities.
The other point is that Bannon, however smart and even charismatic, however much he extolled the virtue of being a “stand-up guy,” was not necessarily a nice guy. Several decades as a grasping entrepreneur without a satisfying success story doesn’t smooth the hustle in hustler. One competitor in the conservative media business, while acknowledging his intelligence and the ambitiousness of his ideas, also noted, “He’s mean, dishonest, and incapable of caring about other people. His eyes dart around like he’s always looking for a weapon with which to bludgeon or gouge you.”
Conservative media fit not only his angry, contrarian, and Roman Catholic side, but it had low barriers to entry—liberal media, by contrast, with its corporate hierarchies, was much harder to break into. What’s more, conservative media is a highly lucrative target market category, with books (often dominating the bestseller lists), videos, and other products
available through direct sales avenues that can circumvent more expensive distribution channels.
In the early 2000s, Bannon became a purveyor of conservative books products and media. His partner in this enterprise was David Bossie, the far-right pamphleteer and congressional committee investigator into the Clintons’ Whitewater affair, who would join him as deputy campaign manager on the Trump campaign. Bannon met Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart at a screening of one of the Bannon-Bossie documentaries
In the Face of Evil
(billed as “Ronald Reagan’s crusade to destroy the most tyrannical and depraved political systems the world has ever known”), which in turn led to a relationship with the man who offered Bannon the ultimate opportunity: Robert Mercer.
* * *
In this regard, Bannon was not so much an entrepreneur of vision or even business discipline, he was more simply following the money—or trying to separate a fool from his money. He could not have done better than Bob and Rebekah Mercer. Bannon focused his entrepreneurial talents on becoming courtier, Svengali, and political investment adviser to father and daughter.
Theirs was a consciously quixotic mission. They would devote vast sums—albeit still just a small part of Bob Mercer’s many billions—to trying to build a radical free-market, small-government, home-schooling, antiliberal, gold-standard, pro-death-penalty, anti-Muslim, pro-Christian, monetarist, anti-civil-rights political movement in the United States.