This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America
Steve Bannon runs the new vast right-wing conspiracy—and he wants to take down both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.
It’s nearing midnight as Steve Bannon pushes past the bluegrass band in his living room and through a crowd of Republican congressmen, political operatives, and a few stray Duck Dynasty cast members. He’s trying to make his way back to the SiriusXM Patriot radio show, broadcasting live from a cramped corner of the 14-room townhouse he occupies a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court. It’s late February, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference is in full swing, and Bannon, as usual, is the whirlwind at the center of the action.
Bannon is the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the crusading right-wing populist website that’s a lineal descendant of the Drudge Report (its late founder, Andrew Breitbart, spent years apprenticing with Matt Drudge) and a haven for people who think Fox News is too polite and restrained. He’d spent the day at CPAC among the conservative faithful, zipping back and forth between his SiriusXM booth and an unlikely pair of guests he was squiring around: Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s right-wing UKIP party, and Phil Robertson, the bandanna’d, ayatollah-bearded Duck Dynasty patriarch who was accepting a free-speech award. CPAC is a beauty contest for Republican presidential hopefuls. But Robertson, a novelty adornment invited after A&E suspended him for denouncing gays, delivered a wild rant about “beatniks” and sexually transmitted diseases that upstaged them all, to Bannon’s evident delight. “If there’s an explosion or a fire somewhere,” says Matthew Boyle, Breitbart’s Washington political editor, “Steve’s probably nearby with some matches.” Afterward, everyone piled into party buses and headed for the townhouse.
Bannon, an ex-Goldman Sachs banker, is the sort of character who would stand out anywhere, but especially in the drab environs of Washington. A mile-a-minute talker who thrums with energy, his sentences speed off ahead of him and spin out into great pileups of nouns, verbs, and grins. With his swept-back blond hair and partiality to cargo shorts and flip-flops, he looks like Jeff Spicoli after a few decades of hard living, and he employs “dude” just as readily.
Ordinarily, Bannon’s townhouse is crypt-quiet and feels like a museum, as it’s faithfully decorated down to its embroidered silk curtains and painted murals in authentic Lincoln-era detail. When I first stoppped by in January, about the only sign that I hadn’t teleported back to the 1860s was a picture on the mantle of a smiling woman on a throne with a machine gun in her lap (it was Bannon’s daughter Maureen, a West Point grad and lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division; the throne belonged to Saddam Hussein—or once did). Until Bannon showed up, the only sounds I heard were faint noises from the basement, which might have been the young women he calls the Valkyries, after the war goddesses of Norse mythology who decided soldiers’ fates in battle. More on them later.
On this February night, however, the party is roaring. Along with his CPAC triumph, a secret project he’d conceived was nearing fruition: His lawyers were almost finished vetting a book about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s murky financial dealings that he’s certain will upend the presidential race. “Dude, it’s going to be epic,” he tells me. I sip my “moonshine”—his wink at the Dynasty guests—and wonder, as people often do, whether Bannon is nuts. On my way out, the doorman hands me a gift: a silver hip flask with “Breitbart” printed above an image of a honey badger, the insouciant African predator of YouTube fame whose catchphrase, “Honey badger don’t give a s---,” is the Breitbart motto.
Bannon’s life is a succession of Gatsbyish reinventions that made him rich and landed him squarely in the middle of the 2016 presidential race: He’s been a naval officer, investment banker, minor Hollywood player, and political impresario. When former Disney chief Michael Ovitz’s empire was falling to pieces, Bannon sat Ovitz down in his living room and delivered the news that he was finished. When Sarah Palin was at the height of her fame, Bannon was whispering in her ear. When Donald Trump decided to blow up the Republican presidential field, Bannon encouraged his circus-like visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. John Boehner just quit as House speaker because of the mutinous frenzy Bannon and his confederates whipped up among conservatives. Today, backed by mysterious investors and a stream of Seinfeld royalties, he sits at the nexus of what Hillary Clinton once dubbed “the vast right-wing conspiracy,” where he and his network have done more than anyone else to complicate her presidential ambitions—and they plan to do more. But this “conspiracy,” at least under Bannon, has mutated into something different from what Clinton described: It’s as eager to go after establishment Republicans such as Boehner or Jeb Bush as Democrats like Clinton.
“I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,” says Bannon, by way of explaining his politics. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f---ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am. But what turned me against the whole establishment was coming back from running companies in Asia in 2008 and seeing that Bush had f---ed up as badly as Carter. The whole country was a disaster.”
As befits someone with his peripatetic background, Bannon is a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde figure in the complicated ecosystem of the right—he's two things at once. And he’s devised a method to influence politics that marries the old-style attack journalism of Breitbart.com, which helped drive out Boehner, with a more sophisticated approach, conducted through the nonprofit Government Accountability Institute, that builds rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then partners with mainstream media outlets conservatives typically despise to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience. The biggest product of this system is the project Bannon was so excited about at CPAC: the bestselling investigative book, written by GAI’s president, Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. Published in May by HarperCollins, the book dominated the political landscape for weeks and probably did more to shape public perception of Hillary Clinton than any of the barbs from her Republican detractors.
Jeb Bush is about to come in for the same treatment. On Oct. 19, GAI will publish Schweizer’s e-book, Bush Bucks: How Public Service and Corporations Helped Make Jeb Rich, that examines how Bush enriched himself after leaving the Florida governor’s mansion in 2007. A copy obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek examines Bush’s Florida land deals, corporate board sinecures, and seven-figure salary with Lehman Brothers, whose 2008 bankruptcy touched off the financial crisis. “It’s not as cinematic as the Clintons, with their warlords and Russian gangsters and that whole cast of bad guys,” says Bannon. “Bush is more prosaic. It’s really just grimy, low-energy crony capitalism.”
While attacking the favored candidates in both parties at once may seem odd, Bannon says he’s motivated by the same populist disgust with Washington that’s animating candidates from Trump to Bernie Sanders. Like both, Bannon is having a bigger influence than anyone could have reasonably expected. But in the Year of the Outsider, it's perhaps fitting that a figure like Bannon, whom nobody saw coming, would roil the national political debate.
Most days, Bannon can be found in his Hyde persona, in the Washington offices of Breitbart News. Operating from the basement of his townhouse—known to all as the Breitbart Embassy—Breitbart’s pirate crew became tribunes of the rising Tea Party movement after Barack Obama’s election, bedeviling GOP leaders and helping to foment the 2013 government shutdown. The site has also made life hell for Democrats by, for example, orchestrating the career-ending genital tweeting misfortune that cost New York Representative Anthony Weiner his seat in Congress in 2011. Tipped to Weiner’s proclivity for sexting with female admirers, Bannon says, the site paid trackers to follow his Twitter account 24 hours a day and eventually intercepted a crotch shot Weiner inadvertently made public. The ensuing scandal culminated in the surreal scene, carried live on television, of Andrew Breitbart hijacking Weiner’s press conference and fielding questions from astonished reporters.
On occasion, this partisan zeal has led to egregious errors. Just before our lunch in 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---.”
But Bannon realizes that politics is sometimes more effective when it’s subtle. So he’s nurtured a Dr. Jekyll side: In 2012 he became founding chairman of GAI, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) research organization staffed with lawyers, data scientists, and forensic investigators. “What Peter and I noticed is that it’s facts, not rumors, that resonate with the best investigative reporters,” Bannon says, referring to GAI’s president. Established in Tallahassee to study crony capitalism and governmental malfeasance, GAI has collaborated with such mainstream news outlets as Newsweek, ABC News, and CBS’s 60 Minutes on stories ranging from insider trading in Congress to credit card fraud among presidential campaigns. It's essentially a mining operation for political scoops that now churns out books like Clinton Cash and Bush Bucks.
What made Clinton Cash so unexpectedly influential is that mainstream news reporters picked up and often advanced Schweizer’s many examples of the Clintons’ apparent conflicts of interest in accepting money from large donors and foreign governments. (“Practically grotesque,” wrote Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination. “On any fair reading, the pattern of behavior that Schweizer has charged is corruption.”) Just before the book’s release, the New York Times ran a front-page story about a Canadian mining magnate, Frank Giustra, who gave tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation and then flew Bill Clinton to Kazakhstan aboard his private jet to dine with the country’s autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Giustra subsequently won lucrative uranium-mining rights in the country. (Giustra denies that the Clinton dinner influenced his Kazakh mining decision.) The Times piece cited Schweizer’s still-unpublished book as a source of its reporting, puzzling many Times readers and prompting a reaction from the paper’s ombudswoman, Margaret Sullivan, who grudgingly concluded that, while no ethical standards were breached, “I still don’t like the way it looked.”
For Bannon, the Clinton Cash uproar validated a personal theory, informed by his Goldman Sachs experience, about how conservatives can influence the media and why they failed the last time a Clinton was running for the White House. “In the 1990s,” he told me, “conservative media couldn’t take down [Bill] Clinton because most of what they produced was punditry and opinion, and they always oversold the conclusion: ‘It’s clearly impeachable!’ So they wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber.” What news conservatives did produce, such as David Brock’s Troopergate investigation on Paula Jones in the American Spectator, was often tainted in the eyes of mainstream editors by its explicit partisan association.
In response, Bannon developed two related insights. “One of the things Goldman teaches you is, don’t be the first guy through the door because you’re going to get all the arrows. If it’s junk bonds, let Michael Milken lead the way,” he says. “Goldman would never lead in any product. Find a business partner.” His other insight was that the reporters staffing the investigative units of major newspapers aren’t the liberal ideologues of conservative fever dreams but kindred souls who could be recruited into his larger enterprise. “What you realize hanging out with investigative reporters is that, while they may be personally liberal, they don’t let that get in the way of a good story,” he says. “And if you bring them a real story built on facts, they’re f---ing badasses, and they’re fair.” Recently, I met with Brock, who renounced conservatism and became an important liberal strategist, fundraiser, and Clinton ally. He founded the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America and just published a book, Killing The Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government. Brock’s attitude toward Bannon isn’t enmity toward an ideological opponent, as I'd expected, but rather a curiosity and professional respect for the tradecraft Bannon demonstrated in advancing the Clinton Cash narrative. What conservatives learned in the ’90s, Brock says, is that “your operation isn’t going to succeed if you don’t cross the barrier into the mainstream.” Back then, he says, conservative reporting had to undergo an elaborate laundering to influence U.S. politics. Reporters such as Brock would publish in small magazines and websites, then try to get their story planted in the British tabloids and hope a right-leaning U.S. outlet such as the New York Post or the Drudge Report picked it up. If it generated enough heat, it might break through to a mainstream paper.
“It seems to me,” says Brock of Bannon and his team, “what they were able to do in this deal with the Times is the same strategy, but more sophisticated and potentially more effective and damaging because of the reputation of the Times. If you were trying to create doubt and qualms about [Hillary Clinton] among progressives, the Times is the place to do it.” He pauses. “Looking at it from their point of view, the Times is the perfect host body for the virus.”
It wasn’t the only one. In June, when the Clinton Cash frenzy hit its apex, Bannon said: “We’ve got the 15 best investigative reporters at the 15 best newspapers in the country all chasing after Hillary Clinton.” There’s more coming, Bannon reveals, including a graphic novel of Clinton Cash, in January, and a Clinton Cash movie set to arrive in February, just as the presidential primary voting gets under way.
In the ’90s, right-wing activists enjoyed a long period of ascendancy, and then collapsed. Then, as now, their prime target was a Clinton, their great ally the House Republicans. What halted this uprising was the sheer lunacy of its perpetrators. The classic example is House Oversight Chairman Dan Burton of Indiana, who became convinced that the 1993 suicide of White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster was actually murder—a theory he sought to prove by reenacting the crime in his backyard with a pistol and a watermelon. Democrats seized on the episode to impugn his credibility, branding him “Watermelon Dan.” “We used the watermelon and the phantom Vince Foster sightings again and again," says Chris Lehane, a Clinton White House staffer and field marshal in the partisan wars of the ’90s. "The phrase didn’t exist then, but that’s when the right-wing conspiracy jumped the shark.”
Bannon believes that episodes like these killed conservatives’ credibility, and with it, their political influence. He’s set out to balance conservatives’ wilder impulses with professionalism, a running theme in his own life. Born into a working-class family within sight of the naval base in Norfolk, Va., he signed up straight out of college, and spent four years at sea aboard a destroyer, first as an auxiliary engineer in the Pacific, then as a navigator in the north Arabian Sea during the Iranian hostage crisis. By the time he arrived in the Persian Gulf in 1979, the U.S. was preparing its ill-fated assault on Tehran, and Bannon’s faith in his commander in chief had dimmed: “You could tell it was going to be a goat f---.” His battle group rotated out just before Carter’s Desert One debacle.
Bannon became a special assistant to the chief of Naval operations at the Pentagon, earning a master’s degree in national security studies at Georgetown University at night. But he was restless. The siren of Reagan-era Wall Street capitalism drained the military life of its luster, so he resolved to make the leap. “Somebody told me,” he says, “if you want to go to Wall Street, you have to go to Harvard Business School.” HBS accepted him, and Bannon, at 29, matriculated in 1983.
Bannon’s Harvard stint coincided with Wall Street’s boom, which fueled fantasies among his classmates of the full-on, debauched 1980s investment-banker lifestyle. Bannon became a grind, made first-year honors, and blanketed the top firms with applications for summer associateships. He was universally rejected. Classmates told him that his age and Navy background were obstacles—he hadn’t come up through the right schools.
One day, a Goldman Sachs representative invited Bannon to a campus recruiting party: Thinking he could talk himself into a job, he donned a suit and headed over. “I get there, and there’s like 700 people jammed into this tent,” he says. “I said, ‘F--- it. There’s no chance.’ So I stood off on the side with a drink and these two other schmendricks standing next to me. And I talk to these guys. We have the greatest conversation about baseball, and I find out after half an hour it was John Weinberg Jr., whose dad runs the firm, and a guy named Rob Kaplan, who became a senior partner.” That night the Goldman executives gathered to discuss prospective hires. One later recounted the scene. “They said, ‘Well, Bannon, I guess we’re gonna reject him. He’s too old for a summer job,’ ” Bannon says. “And these guys say, ‘Oh no, we talked to him. He’s terrific.’ Literally, a complete crapshoot. But I got a job.”
Bannon landed in Goldman’s New York office at the height of the hostile takeover boom. “Everything in the Midwest was being raided by Milken,” he says. “It was like a firestorm.” Goldman didn’t do hostile takeovers, instead specializing in raid defense for companies targeted by the likes of Drexel Burnham and First Boston. The first few years, he worked every day except Christmas and loved it: “The camaraderie was amazing. It was like being in the Navy, in the wardroom of a ship.” Later, he worked on a series of leveraged buyouts, including a deal for Calumet Coach that involved Bain Capital and an up-and-comer named Mitt Romney.
Two big things were going on at Goldman Sachs in the late ’80s. The globalization of world capital markets meant that size suddenly mattered. Everyone realized that the firm, then a private partnership, would have to go public. Bankers also could see that the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial and investment banking was going to fall, setting off a flurry of acquisitions. Specialists would command a premium. Bannon shipped out to Los Angeles to specialize in media and entertainment. “A lot of people were coming from outside buying media companies,” he says. “There was huge consolidation.”
After a few years, in 1990, Bannon and a couple of Goldman colleagues set off to launch Bannon & Co., a boutique investment bank specializing in media. At the time, investors preferred hard assets—manufacturing companies, real estate—and avoided things like movie studios and film libraries, which were harder to price. Bannon’s group, drawing on data such as VHS cassette sales and TV ratings, devised a model to value intellectual property in the same way as tangible assets. “We got a ton of business,” he says.
When the French bank Crédit Lyonnais, a major financier of independent Hollywood studios, almost went bankrupt, Bannon & Co. rolled up its loan portfolio. When MGM went bust, it worked on the studio’s financing. When Polygram Records got into the film business, Bannon’s firm handled its acquisitions.
And then, serendipitously, Bannon wound up in the entertainment business himself. Westinghouse Electric, a client, was looking to unload Castle Rock Entertainment, which had a big TV and movie presence, including Billy Crystal’s films. Bannon reeled in an eager buyer: Ted Turner. “Turner was going to build this huge studio,” he says, “so we were negotiating the deal at the St. Regis hotel in New York. As often happened with Turner, when it came time to actually close the deal, Ted was short of cash. ... Westinghouse just wanted out. We told them, ‘You ought to take this deal. It’s a great deal.’ And they go, ‘If this is such a great deal, why don’t you defer some of your cash fee and keep an ownership stake in a package of TV rights?’ ” In lieu of a full adviser’s fee, the firm accepted a stake in five shows, including one in its third season regarded as the runt of the litter: Seinfeld. “We calculated what it would get us if it made it to syndication,” says Bannon. “We were wrong by a factor of five.”
After Société Générale bought Bannon & Co. in 1998, Bannon, no longer needing a day job, dove into Hollywood moguldom, becoming an executive producer of movies, including Anthony Hopkins’s 1999 Oscar-nominated Titus. He met a hard-partying talent manager named Jeff Kwatinetz who had discovered the band Korn and managed the Backstreet Boys. As Bannon was selling his company, Kwatinetz was launching one of his own, a management outfit called the Firm whose clients included Ice Cube and Martin Lawrence. Newly flush and sensing adventure, Bannon became a partner and a key player in the Firm’s great coup, its acquisition of former Disney chief Ovitz’s company, Artists Management Group. Ovitz had spent $100 million building a media giant he thought would conquer Hollywood, but AMG was bleeding money. Selling to the Firm was a last-ditch bid to save face. Instead, as Vanity Fair recounted, Bannon was dispatched to Ovitz’s Beverly Hills mansion to deliver the final humiliation in person, an offer for AMG of $5 million, less than the value of Ovitz’s home.
The Hollywood ether soon convinced Bannon that his passion wasn’t financing films, but making them. He was souring on Wall Street and what it had come to represent. “Goldman in the ’80s was like a priesthood, a monastic experience where you worked all the time but were incredibly dedicated to client services, to building and growing companies,” he says. He underwent a conversion like the one Michael Lewis has described, watching with horror as staid private partnerships such as Goldman Sachs became highly leveraged, publicly traded companies operating like casinos. “I turned on Wall Street for the same reason everybody else did: The American taxpayer was forced to cut mook deals to bail out guys who didn’t deserve it.”
Bannon’s political awakening was also spurred by the Sept. 11 attacks, which led him, in 2004, to make a Reagan-venerating documentary, In the Face of Evil (“A brilliant effort … extremely well done,” said Rush Limbaugh). This introduced him to Schweizer, a Cold War scholar whose book, Reagan’s War, was the basis of the film. It also brought him into Andrew Breitbart’s orbit. “We screened the film at a festival in Beverly Hills,” Bannon recalls, “and out of the crowd comes this, like, bear who’s squeezing me like my head’s going to blow up and saying how we’ve gotta take back the culture.”
Breitbart, who also lived in Los Angeles, had a profound influence on Bannon. When they met, Breitbart was starting his website, after having worked with Drudge and having helped Arianna Huffington launch the Huffington Post. Bannon lent his financial acumen and office space. He marveled at Breitbart’s visceral feel for the news cycle and his ability to shape coverage through the Drudge Report, which is avidly followed by TV producers and news editors.
“One of the things I admired about him was that the dirtiest word for him was ‘punditry,’ ” says Bannon. “Our vision—Andrew’s vision—was always to build a global, center-right, populist, anti-establishment news site.” With this in mind, he set out to line up investors.
Bannon continued making documentaries—big, crashing, opinionated films with Wagner scores and arresting imagery: Battle for America (2010), celebrating the Tea Party; Generation Zero (2010), examining the roots of the financial meltdown; The Undefeated (2011), championing Palin. In the Bannon repertoire, no metaphor is too direct. His films are peppered with footage of lions attacking helpless gazelles, seedlings bursting from the ground into glorious bloom. Palin, for one, ate it up and traveled to Iowa, trailed by hundreds of reporters, to appear with him at a 2011 screening in Pella that the press thought might signal her entrance into the 2012 presidential race. (No such luck.) Breitbart came along as promoter and ringmaster. When I spoke with him afterward, he described Bannon, with sincere admiration, as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.
In 2010, Breitbart News hit a wall. The site published video, furnished by a conservative activist, of a speech to the NAACP by a Department of Agriculture official named Shirley Sherrod, in which she appeared to advocate anti-white racism. Within hours, she was fired, as the story blanketed cable news. It soon became clear that the Breitbart News video was misleadingly edited—that Sherrod’s point was the opposite of what was portrayed Fox News, which aggressively promoted the video, banned Andrew Breitbart as an on-air guest. Bannon, who was raising capital for the site’s relaunch, suddenly encountered “nuclear winter.”
But in a gauge of how media standards have shifted since the ’90s, the ostracization of Breitbart News didn’t last long. Less than a year later, when the site caught Weiner tweeting pictures of his genitals, Andrew Breitbart was welcomed back on Fox News. The experience taught Bannon the power of real news.
On the morning of March 1, 2012, with the relaunch just days away, Andrew Breitbart was walking in his Brentwood neighborhood when he collapsed. He died soon after of heart failure, at 43. Bannon got the news while in New York pitching investors. At the funeral, Drudge asked Bannon what he planned to do. “We’re going ahead with the launch,” he replied. Bannon stepped in as executive chairman.
Breitbart’s genius was that he grasped better than anyone else what the early 20th century press barons understood—that most readers don’t approach the news as a clinical exercise in absorbing facts, but experience it viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes, and villains. Breitbart excelled at creating these narratives, an editorial approach that's lived on. “When we do an editorial call, I don’t even bring anything I feel like is only a one-off story, even if it’d be the best story on the site,” says Alex Marlow, the site’s editor in chief. “Our whole mindset is looking for these rolling narratives.” He rattles off the most popular ones, which Breitbart News covers intensively from a posture of aggrieved persecution. “The big ones won’t surprise you,” he says. “Immigration, ISIS, race riots, and what we call ‘the collapse of traditional values.’ But I’d say Hillary Clinton is tops.”
The website, which Breitbart News Network CEO Solov says draws 21 million unique users a month, has often managed to inject these narratives into the broader discourse. It was Breitbart News, for example, that first drew attention to the child migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border last summer that killed any chance of Congress passing immigration reform. “They have an incredible eye for an important story, particular ones that are important to conservatives and Republicans,” says Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican. “They’ve become extraordinarily influential. Radio talk show hosts are reading Breitbart every day. You can feel it when they interview you.”
Lately, the site has championed Trump’s presidential candidacy, helping to coalesce a splinter faction of conservatives irate over Fox News’ treatment of the Republican frontrunner.
Tallahassee is about as far as you can get in the U.S., geographically and psychically, from the circus of the presidential campaign trail. That’s why Bannon chose to locate the Government Accountability Institute there—that, and the fact that Schweizer had moved down from Washington. “There’s nothing to do in Tallahassee, so I get a lot more work done,” Schweizer jokes, on my recent visit. GAI is housed in a sleepy cul de sac of two-story brick buildings that looks like what you’d get if Scarlett O’Hara designed an office park. The unmarked entrance is framed by palmetto trees and sits beneath a large, second-story veranda with sweeping overhead fans, where the (mostly male) staff gathers every afternoon to smoke cigars and brainstorm.
Schweizer began his career as a researcher at the conservative Hoover Institution, digging through Soviet archives. In 2004 he co-authored a well-regarded history of the Bush family, The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, that drew on interviews with many of its members, including Jeb. But Schweizer grew disillusioned with Washington and became radicalized against what he perceived to be a bipartisan culture of corruption. “To me, Washington, D.C., is a little bit like professional wrestling,” he told me. “When I was growing up in Seattle, I’d turn on Channel 13, the public-access station, and watch wrestling. At first I thought, ‘Man, these guys hate each other because they’re beating the crap out of each other.’ But I eventually realized they’re actually business partners.”
Schweizer’s interest turned toward exposing this culture, and his books became more denunciatory. In 2011 he published Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison. The book caught the attention of 60 Minutes and led Congress to pass a law, the STOCK Act, aimed at curbing the abuses Schweizer documented. Bannon encouraged these investigations and eventually offered Schweizer a job. “He told me, ‘I know people who will support this kind of work,’” Schweizer says. In 2012, GAI set up shop.
Schweizer, 50, is friendly, sandy-haired, and a little pudgy, the sort of fellow you’d meet at a neighborhood barbecue and instantly take a liking to. (Bannon nurses this regular-Joe appeal by forbidding him from wearing a tie when he’s on TV.) Bannon and Schweizer had two principles when they conceived the Clinton Cash project. First, it would avoid the nuttier conspiracy theories. “We have a mantra,” says Bannon. “Facts get shares, opinions get shrugs.” Second, they would heed the lesson Bannon learned at Goldman: specialize. Hillary Clinton’s story, they believed, was too sprawling and familiar to tackle in its entirety. So they'd focus only on the last decade, the least familiar period, and especially on the millions of dollars flowing into the Clinton Foundation. Bannon calls this approach “periodicity.”
As with many of the Clintons’ troubles, the couple’s own behavior provided copious material for investigators. When Clinton became secretary of state, the foundation signed an agreement with the White House to disclose all of its contributors. It didn’t follow through. So GAI researchers plumbed tax filings, flight logs, and foreign government documents to turn up what the foundation withheld. Their most effective method was mining the so-called Deep Web, the 97 percent or so of information on the Internet that isn’t indexed for search engines such as Google and therefore is difficult to find.
“Welcome to The Matrix,” says Tony, GAI’s data scientist, as he maps out the Deep Web for me on a whiteboard (we agreed I wouldn’t publish his last name). A presentation on the hidden recesses of the Web follows. “The Deep Web,” he explains, “consists of a lot of useless or depreciated information, stuff in foreign languages, and so on. But a whole bunch of it is very useful, if you can find it.” Tony specializes in finding the good stuff, which he does by writing software protocols that spider through the Deep Web. Since this requires heavy computing power, Tony struck a deal to use the services of a large European provider during off-peak hours. “We’ve got $1.3 billion of equipment I’m using at almost full capacity,” he says. This effort yielded a slew of unreported foundation donors who appear to have benefited financially from their relationship with the Clintons, including the uranium mining executives cited by the New York Times (who showed up on an unindexed Canadian government website). These donations illustrate a pattern of commingling private money and government policy that disturbed even many Democrats.
Clinton Cash caused a stir not just because of these revelations, but because of how they arrived. GAI is set up more like a Hollywood movie studio than a think tank. The creative mind through which all its research flows and is disseminated belongs to a beaming young Floridian named Wynton Hall, a celebrity ghostwriter who’s penned 18 books, six of them New York Times best-sellers, including Trump’s Time to Get Tough. Hall’s job is to transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas that can be unleashed on a set schedule, like summer blockbusters. “We work very long and hard to build a narrative, storyboarding it out months in advance,” he says. “I’m big on this: We’re not going public until we have something so tantalizing that any editor at a serious publication would be an idiot to pass it up and give a competitor the scoop. ”
To this end, Hall peppers his colleagues with slogans so familiar around the office that they’re known by their abbreviations. “ABBN — always be breaking news,” he says. Another slogan is “depth beats speed.” Time-strapped reporters squeezed for copy will gratefully accept original, fact-based research because most of what they’re inundated with is garbage. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” says Bannon. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”
The reason GAI does this is because it’s the secret to how conservatives can hack the mainstream media. Hall has distilled this, too, into a slogan: “Anchor left, pivot right.” It means that “weaponizing” a story onto the front page of the New York Times (“the Left”) is infinitely more valuable than publishing it on Breitbart.com. “We don’t look at the mainstream media as enemies because we don’t want our work to be trapped in the conservative ecosystem,” says Hall. “We live and die by the media. Every time we’re launching a book, I’ll build a battle map that literally breaks down by category every headline we’re going to place, every op-ed Peter’s going to publish. Some of it is a wish list. But it usually gets done.”
Once that work has permeated the mainstream—once it’s found “a host body,” in David Brock's phrase—then comes the “pivot.” Heroes and villains emerge and become grist for a juicy Breitbart News narrative. “With Clinton Cash, we never really broke a story,” says Bannon, “but you go [to Breitbart.com] and we’ve got 20 things, we’re linking to everybody else’s stuff, we’re aggregating, we’ll pull stuff from the Left. It’s a rolling phenomenon. Huge traffic. Everybody’s invested.”
Over the summer, Hillary Clinton failed to emerge as the overwhelming frontrunner everyone expected. She’s been weighed down by the Clinton Foundation buckraking and the revelation that she kept a private e-mail server as secretary of state and destroyed much of her correspondence. Recently, the scandals have merged. In August e-mails surfaced showing that Bill Clinton, through the foundation, sought State Department permission to accept speaking fees in such repressive countries as North Korea and the Congo. A poll the same day found that the word voters associate most with his wife is “liar.” On Oct. 22, Hillary Clinton will testify on these matters before the Select Committee on Benghazi. Her troubles aren’t going away.
Veteran Democrats such as Lehane concede that Bannon and his ilk have been more effective than conservatives who targeted Bill Clinton 25 years ago. “They’ve adapted into a higher species,” he says. There’s more on the way. “We’ve got two more waves of stuff on Clinton corruption," says Bannon, including a focus on how the donors highlighted in Clinton Cash violated many of the principles liberals hold dear: “You look at what they’ve done in the Colombian rain forest, look at the arms merchants, the warlords, the human trafficking—if you take anything that the Left professes to be a cornerstone value, the Clintons have basically played them for fools. They’ve enriched themselves while playing up the worst cast of characters in the world.”
While this is surely unwelcome news for Clinton, Lehane argues that where the Clintons are concerned, their opponents invariably become consumed by partisan zeal and undermine their own cause. “Remember the old Pink Panther movies when Clouseau would walk in and the chief inspector would be there, and he’d just start losing his marbles, no matter what?” he says. “That’s how these guys are.”
Bannon does, indeed, have a touch of Clinton Madness. When we met in January, Bill Cosby’s serial predations had just exploded into the news after laying dormant for many years. Bannon was certain this signaled trouble for Bill Clinton, whose own sexual history some conservatives long to revive as a way of hampering his wife’s campaign. His conviction stems from the group of young, female Breitbart News reporters whom he’s dubbed the Valkyries. When I expressed skepticism about the value of reintroducing old scandals, Bannon countered that the Valkyries—a sort of in-house focus group of millennial voter sentiment—were unfamiliar with Clinton contretemps that most older people consider settled. "There’s a whole generation of people who love the news but were 7 or 8 years old when this happened and have no earthly idea about the Clinton sex stuff,” he says.
It’s impossible to predict how Bannon’s plots and intrigues will ultimately affect the presidential race. It’s not even clear on whose behalf he’s acting—his own or someone else’s? Are Seinfeld royalties enough to take on Clinton and Bush? Or do others have a stake? Solov, the CEO, won’t say. “I can’t go into that,” he says. “It’s privately owned.” Bannon wouldn’t comment either. However, a prominent conservative says Robert Mercer, the reclusive co-founder of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies and a major donor to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, has invested $10 million. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, is listed in 2013 tax documents as a GAI board member.
Even without knowing the identity of his backers, Bannon’s designs are clear enough. While he’d blanch at the comparison, he’s pursuing something like the old Marxist dialectical concept of “heightening the contradictions,” only rather than foment revolution among the proletariat, he’s trying to disillusion Clinton’s and Bush’s natural base of support, recognizing, as Goldman Sachs taught him, that you’re more effective if others lead the way.
To succeed, Bannon will need to activate the anger and disgust with cronyism that’s as powerful among supporters of Sanders as it is among fans of Trump. In Tallahassee, as GAI’s phone keeps ringing, the vehicle for achieving this is clear. Editors and reporters at prominent magazines and newspapers, including ones that had passed when approached with Clinton Cash revelations, are calling to ask when the next salvo will arrive—and might they arrange an exclusive?
For many, the answer will be yes. “We’re going to go to the investigative units, not the political reporters, and just give them the stuff,” says Bannon. “We have faith they’ll take the stories and do the additional reporting.” The thought pleases him, and he grins. “Just like last time, we’ll go out and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ve got. You guys take it from here.’ ”
Update, Oct. 13: An earlier version of this story stated that James O'Keefe supplied the videotape of Shirley Sherrod. He did not.