“I am who I am,” Donald Trump told a local TV station in Wisconsin on Tuesday. “It’s me, I don’t want to change. …. I don’t want to pivot.”
Anyone still holding out hope that Trump might actually begin that long-awaited centrist and/or “be less crazy” campaign reboot had those dreams dashed for good early Wednesday morning when he named Steve Bannon as the chief executive of his presidential campaign. Bannon is the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the conspiracy theory-minded and vehemently anti-Washington news outlet that has made no secret of its fondness for Trump. Back in March, Bannon sided with the Trump campaign in its dispute with a then-Breitbart reporter who alleged Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, had assaulted her. He also reportedly exercised regular veto power at the site over any Trump stories he didn’t like. (The Trump campaign says Bannon will “temporarily” step down from his role at Breitbart.)
While the Trump team is doing its best to avoid calling this a campaign shakeup, it’s fairly obvious that’s what it is. Bannon’s hiring—along with that of GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager—represents an unofficial demotion for campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the longtime GOP operative whose well-established ties to pro-Russian forces in Ukraine were spotlighted further in two bombshell reports on Wednesday. Manafort’s shady international dealings don’t appear to be the driving factor behind Trump’s decision, but they are certainly in the background. Via the Washington Post:
Trump’s stunning decision effectively ended the months-long push by campaign chairman Paul Manafort to moderate Trump’s presentation and pitch for the general election. And it sent a signal, perhaps more clearly than ever, that the real-estate magnate intends to finish this race on his own terms, with friends who share his instincts at his side. … While Trump respects Manafort, the aides said, he has grown to feel “boxed in” and “controlled” by people who barely know him. Moving forward, he plans to focus intensely on rousing his voters at rallies and through media appearances.
Bannon’s hiring appears to mark a return to the “Let Trump Be Trump” political strategy espoused by the since-fired Lewandowski and loathed by GOP establishment figures like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, both of whom have been frequent Breitbart targets. Ryan, McConnell, and other skeptical mainstream Republicans have stood behind Trump this year while criticizing him for immoderate actions—like his feud with gold star parents Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan—but Bannon’s hiring suggests that Trump has no intention of placating them. (The GOP nominee may end up feeling differently, though, if the RNC pulls its financial support, as it reportedly has discussed.)
Unlike Lewandowski, who was relatively unknown among political consultants before Trump’s surprise primary rise, Bannon enters the fray as far less of a blank slate. The former Navy officer and Goldman Sachs investment banker—who reportedly made part of his fortune from the syndication of Seinfeld—was the subject of a fascinating Bloomberg BusinessWeek profile last fall. The story, headlined “This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America,” offers up a detailed look at both Bannon’s worldview and his ability to advance it behind the scenes. In addition to stoking the anti-Clinton fires at Breitbart, Bannon also uses the far less well-known Government Accountability Institute he helped create to provide the kindling. The Florida-based nonprofit’s most well-known project was Clinton Cash, a flawed but still valuable book-length investigation into the cozy ties between Hillary and Bill and the global patrons of their family foundation. The book, published last year, was widely picked up by mainstream outlets well outside of the conservative echo chamber Breitbart calls home.
Still, anyone wondering which part of Bannon’s style was most attractive to Trump should take a look at anecdotes like this in the BusinessWeek profile:
[I]n January, a Breitbart reporter published an article assailing Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch—but went after the wrong woman. She wasn’t, as the site reported, the Loretta Lynch who was once part of Bill Clinton’s defense team. The embarrassed reporter asked for time off. Bannon, allergic to any hint of concession, refused: “I told him, ‘No. In fact, you’re going to write a story every day this week.’ ” He shrugs. “We’re honey badgers,” he explains. “We don’t give a s—.”
Given what we’ve seen from Trump’s campaign—especially in recent days—it’s safe to say that’s a motto he will love.