Bannon may have lost his fight with Trump - but what does that mean for Breitbart?

Steve Bannon speaking at a campaign event in Fairhope, Alabama on Dec 5, 2017.
Steve Bannon speaking at a campaign event in Fairhope, Alabama on Dec 5, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Steve Bannon seems to have one last conservative ally in his current sumo-style standoff with President Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, it's Breitbart News, the media organ that Bannon runs and which has long been the vehicle to promote Bannon's slate of populist "anti-establishment" Republican candidates.

The website and its chairman found themselves isolated on Thursday (Jan 4) after Bannon's comments to author Michael Wolff caused a backlash inside the White House, among rival conservative media outlets and among Trump supporters more broadly.

Bannon's comments - he told Wolff it was "treasonous" for members of Trump's family and campaign staff to meet Russian representatives during the election last year - prompted a key backer, the billionaire Mercer family, to withdraw financial support for Bannon's political activities on Thursday. So far, however, the Mercers have not signalled that they will walk away from Breitbart itself, which would be a crippling blow.

Bannon - who returned to Breitbart in August after a year as Trump's campaign manager and chief White House strategist - hasn't disavowed his comments to Wolff. But he has made concessionary statements since Trump blasted him in a statement ("he lost his mind") on Wednesday.

"The president of the United States is a great man," Bannon said Wednesday night on Breitbart's SiriusXM radio program. "You know I support him day in and day out."

On his Thursday morning radio show, he added: "Nothing will ever come between us and President Trump and his agenda. We're as tight on this agenda as we've ever been." But for the moment at least the damage appears to have been done.

Even as Breitbart reported the unfolding controversy in relatively even-handed fashion, its readers hurled lightning bolts at Bannon. "Has Breitbart News fired Bannon yet?" wrote one, in a very long skein of negative comments about Bannon on the site.

 
 

"How do they distance themselves from this traitor?" Breitbart's representatives, including editor Alex Marlow, didn't return repeated requests for comment on Thursday.

Bannon's effort to boost conservative candidates took its biggest blow on Thursday when billionaire donor Rebekah Mercer, in a rare public statement, said she was withdrawing financial support. "I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected," Mercer said. "My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements."

However, Mercer said she remains committed to Breitbart. Her family holds a minority stake in the organisation.

Rivals took aim at Bannon, too. During his Infowars program, conservative conspiracy aficionado Alex Jones said Bannon "stabbed America and the president in the back."

Matt Drudge - the powerful conservative media aggregator who gave Breitbart's late founder, Andrew Breitbart, his start - suggested in a tweet that Breitbart's chief executive Larry Solov and his widow Susie Breitbart "will take Breitbart into the fresh future", a veiled reference to dumping Bannon.

The Washington Times put it more bluntly in a headline: "Are Bannon's Breitbart Days Numbered?" That suggestion was picked up by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said at the daily briefing on Thursday that getting rid of Bannon was "something (Breitbart) should look at and consider".

Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend who heads the conservative Newsmax news organisation, said in an interview that Bannon made a "miscalculation" by criticising Trump and his family. "Steve has been publicly positive toward the president, but obviously privately critical," Ruddy said. "That's now out in the open. The president is the base, not Bannon. The Breitbart base is all about Donald Trump. They look at him for what he is and the strength he represents."

Ruddy predicted that the Bannon-Trump split "will be good for the president. It will become clearer to him the grass-roots support him and he doesn't need Steve Bannon."

The shaming and shunning of Bannon by Trump loyalists comes at a vulnerable time for the former chief White House strategist and the media organisation he heads. Bannon's clout as a conservative-populist "anti-establishment" kingmaker was already in question due to his support of Alabama Republican senate candidate Roy Moore, who lost to a Democrat, Doug Jones, in last month's special election.

At the same time, Breitbart's advertiser base has crumbled in the face a persistent social-media campaign aimed at its sponsors; people familiar with the site's finances, which are private, say it lost money last year, despite being one of the most heavily trafficked conservative sites on the Internet.

The Mercer statement, while damning of Bannon, suggests Breitbart itself may have dodged a bullet for now, with her continued pledge of support for the website. The Mercer family co-owns Breitbart with chief executive Solov, the Breitbart family and other investors.

"No money, no power," said Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman. "If they lose Mercer, where does the money come from? For Bannon, this could mean losing Breitbart and then what does he really have to offer any candidate he gets behind?"

But that's today. Tomorrow could be different, he said. Trump, he notes, has publicly attacked allies such as Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, Republican senators and others, only to later embrace them. Bannon could be rehabilitated, too. "What Trump says today in anger isn't necessarily what he'll stick to a week or a month or a year from now," Bardella said. "Moreover, because Trump is a psychotic narcissist, he may take great delight in a humbled Bannon groveling before him for forgiveness and a second or third chance. Ultimately, if Trump finds himself in political jeopardy through either (Special Counsel Robert Mueller's) investigation or the midterms, don't be shocked if he starts taking advice from Steve again."