How do you want to be perceived?, asked talk-show host-journalist Charlie Rose.
“The media image I think is pretty accurate. I’m a street fighter,” said former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon during a “60 Minutes” interview with Rose on Sunday. It was his first since leaving his post at the White House and his first “ever” on television, said Bannon.
“Street fighter,” however, is not among the most common public perceptions about the co-founder and executive chairman of the far-right news platform Breitbart.
Bannon, who was an elusive figure in the Trump administration, has been described as an “evil genius” by former employees, inspired the title of the bestseller “Devil’s Bargain” (a book about Bannon’s relationship with President Trump) and was portrayed as the Grim Reaper in one of “Saturday Night Live’s” more memorable Trump-era gags.
Bannon himself fed that dark lord image when he said last year, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
So it seemed like divine intervention Sunday when the heavily advertised CBS sit-down with Bannon, a potential political media storm, was upstaged by an actual storm.
Call it the silver lining of an otherwise catastrophic weather front, but Hurricane Irma quite literally stole Bannon’s thunder.
The hurricane, covered on every other news channel, was of course far more dramatic and relevant than the interview with a former adviser who lasted less than a year in the White House.
Bannon appeared more tired than usual, which is saying something. His 10 o’clock shadow looked closer to midnight, his eyes more bloodshot than the last time we saw him lurking in the background of an Oval Office meeting. And there was the rumpled, button-down shirt and that sallow complexion that has been a gift to late-night monologues.
On Thursday, “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert reacted to weeklong teases of the “60 Minutes” interview: “This Sunday, Bannon’s making his first post-White House TV appearance right here on CBS. Surprisingly, it is not as a corpse on “NCIS”: ‘How long was this guy floating in the harbor?’”
The interview with Bannon, which lasted a little over 30 minutes, followed a controversial sit-down Megyn Kelly did on her NBC show with another far right figure who decried the mainstream media while appearing on it: Alex Jones.
Bannon’s appearance took place among several other high-profile interviews on major networks with hot-button political figures: Anthony Scaramucci, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Bernie Sanders all appeared over the last month. Hillary Clinton and Sean Spicer are scheduled to hit the late-night circuit over the next couple of weeks.
On Sunday, an intrepid Rose and a combative Bannon moved between tense conversation and verbal sparring on subjects from Russian collusion (“It’s a total and complete farce,” he said) and Russia’s meddling in the election: “I think it’s far from conclusive,” said Bannon.
On immigration, Rose contended that welcoming immigrants is a core American value. Bannon said, “This is the thing of the leftists. Charlie, that’s beneath you.… Economic nationalism is what this country was built on!” And regarding the Catholic Church’s reaction to the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Bannon, a Catholic, claimed religious leaders are in so much trouble that they have a vested interest in the policy: “They need illegal aliens here to fill the churches.”
Throughout the interview, the former adviser wholly supported Trump — even on the president’s failure to repeal Obamacare or to “drain the swamp.” “I’m going to be his wingman outside for the entire time.… Our purpose is to support Donald Trump.”
Then why aren’t you still there in the White House, asked Rose. Why would the president allow you to leave if he didn’t want you out? Rose said leaks and news from the White House painted the picture of Bannon as a man who was being increasingly isolated. Sweating visibly, Bannon gulped: “That’s absolutely not true. I still had the same influence on the president I had on Day 1.”
Bannon appeared to find questions about the 2016 election year easier to answer. Specifically, what happened behind the scenes when that “Access Hollywood” tape leaked of Trump bragging to then-host Billy Bush about forcing himself on and sexually assaulting women.
“Billy Bush Saturday showed me who really had Donald Trump’s back to play to his better angels,” Bannon said in a teaser clip preceding his appearance. “All you had to do, and what he did, was go out and continue to talk to the American people. … People didn’t care. They knew Donald Trump was just doing locker room talk with a guy. And they dismissed it. It had no lasting impact on the campaign. Yet if you see the mainstream media that day, it was, literally, he was falling into ‘Dante’s Inferno.’”
Satan is apparently an evergreen in interviews with Bannon.
Bannon went on to say that the Republican establishment, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, is “trying to nullify the 2016 election” because they don’t fully support Trump. “They do not want want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented,” said Bannon. “It’s obvious as night follows day.”
And then, in what sounded more like the threat of a henchman than street fighter smack, Bannon said: “They’re going to be held accountable if they do not support the president of the United States. Right now, there’s no accountability.”
“Now that you’re out of the White House, you’re going to war?,” asked Rose.
Bannon’s weapon is his digital news platform, which he described as a “little website” during the interview. But Breitbart held considerable influence when it hammered away at candidate Clinton and the liberal establishment during the presidential campaign, often peddling fabricated news. Candidate Trump more than once quoted Breitbart stories verbatim.
The site has been accused of supporting a white nationalist agenda. When Rose pushed Bannon on the question of why Trump didn’t outright denounce the violence of KKK and other white supremacist groups last month in Charlottesville, Va., Bannon began grinding his teeth.
Trump has denounced leaders like David Duke of the KKK, defended Bannon. And as for his own beliefs: “I don’t need to be lectured by a bunch of limousine liberals” about diversity and respect of civil rights. That was not to be confused with the “pearl-clutching” media he referred to at another point in the interview.
“I don’t need the affirmation of the mainstream media. I don’t care what they say,” said a defiant Bannon, minutes before wrapping up his interview on mainstream media. Then it was out with the old crisis and in with the news: Hurricane Irma.