If ever there was a news media organization that needs a jolt of energy, it’s Breitbart News, the far-right news and commentary platform guided to prominence by Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist.
The site’s traffic and advertising have declined precipitously over the past year, perhaps in tandem with Trump’s approval ratings. Many news sites have come off election-year highs, but Breitbart has crested and fallen like a Pacific wave. Its traffic is off by almost half since it peaked in November at around 24 million monthly visitors.
Enter - or reenter - Bannon, who resumed his role as Breitbart’s executive chairman and guiding editorial philosopher on Friday, also his last day at the White House. Bannon once again leads the newsroom’s twice-daily editorial calls, in which Breitbart maps out its attacks, typically against liberals, “establishment” Republicans and anyone else standing in the way of what Bannon had defined as Breitbart’s agenda - restrictive immigration, unilateral trade, opposition to “radical” Islam and a staunch pro-Israel policy.
In other words, the Trump agenda, although Breitbart has always been more wedded to Trump’s issues than to Trump himself. The immediate effect of Bannon’s return has been an adrenaline spike of publicity for Breitbart and a newly invigorated sense of optimism among its 125 or so employees.
“It’s pretty obvious the mood at Breitbart is fired up and ready for war,” said Matthew Boyle, the site’s political editor, “but the real question is whether the political class, media establishment and the swamp are ready for us. Our viewpoint of exposing failed institutions remains the same,” but now “our captain [is] back at the helm of the pirate ship.”
Using an animal metaphor embraced by Breitbart to symbolize its relentlessness, Boyle added, “The honey badgers are on the loose again, and hungry.”
Breitbart’s support of Trump, manifest during the campaign, doesn’t seem likely to waver so long as Trump continues to press for the policies that attracted Breitbart (and then Bannon himself) to him in the first place, such as building a wall on the southern border. Conversely, Trump faces some risk in alienating “Bannon-bart,” which presumably speaks to and for a large segment of his base.
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The inside betting is that Bannon will continue to deploy Breitbart against Bannon’s former White House rivals, including the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Kushner’s wife and presidential daughter Ivanka Trump; economics adviser Gary Cohn; and national security adviser H.R. McMaster and his deputy Dina Powell. Breitbart has for months reserved its deepest insult - “globalists” - for this faction over its advocacy of multilateral military and economic alliances.
Bannon’s first official salvo may have been an article published Sunday that paints McMaster as soft on Islamist terrorism. The article (headlined “H.R. McMaster Endorsed Book That Advocates Quran-Kissing Apology Ceremonies”) said that McMaster provided a promotional blurb for the book “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” by a U.S. military officer, Youssef H. Aboul-Enein. The book advises U.S. troops to treat the Koran with respect to avoid inflaming religious tensions in countries where U.S. personnel are deployed.
On Sunday, Breitbart indirectly attacked Ivanka Trump by posting an article based on a Daily Mail report that said she had forced Bannon out of the White House. The Daily Mail article quoted anonymous “Washington sources” saying that Ivanka Trump pushed for Bannon’s ouster because his “far-right views” clashed with her Jewish faith.
Breitbart eventually updated its article with a note saying that “a senior White House aide informed Breitbart News that the Daily Mail report was ‘totally false’ and called into question the sources in the article of having any real knowledge of the Trump family.”
The site also wrote up a Vanity Fair article about a conflict between Kushner and Bannon over Bannon’s alleged advice to Trump some months ago to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Bannon isn’t quoted, an odd omission given that he oversaw publication of it.
In fact, with Bannon back in control on Monday, Breitbart’s agenda seemed largely unchanged from when Bannon was advising Trump.
Its featured headlines included attacks on Muslims (“Franklin Graham: ‘Politicians Should Stop Saying Islam Is a Religion of Peace’”) and Muslim immigration specifically (“Pope Shock: Francis Says Rights of Migrants Trump National Security Concerns After Weekend of Terror”).
Neither Bannon nor Breitbart editor Alexander Marlow responded to requests for comment. But people at Breitbart say Bannon may be seeking to expand the site’s editorial staff, including hiring more journalists from mainstream outlets.
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However, plans to expand its European editions - announced last year as Bannon left to join Trump - appear to be dead. Another possible initiative, they said, may be in radio, with the expansion of Breitbart’s three-hour morning talk show on Sirius XM into a full-time channel on the satellite service.
Despite the departure of dozens of advertisers amid an ongoing boycott, Breitbart isn’t hurting financially; it is part-owned by billionaire hedge-fund executive Robert Mercer, who has become a generous supporter of conservative political causes.
Kurt Bardella, who directed public relations for Breitbart before leaving in a dispute with Bannon last year, said Bannon and Breitbart’s next move is into TV. His goal, according to Bardella, is to compete with Fox News for conservative viewers.
“There was a lot of speculation about Bannon and Trump starting Trump TV had they lost the election,” Bardella says. “With Mercer money and a lot of talent available, and with Trump needing some kind of exit strategy down the line, it makes sense.”
Such an undertaking is bound to be risky and expensive, but Bardella points out that it may be personal for Bannon: Remember, Bardella says, that it was Fox News proprietor Rupert Murdoch who told Trump to dump Bannon just a few days ago.
“I think the difference is he has both the incentive and time to actually dictate and drive this war with Fox,” he said. “It’s one thing operating in the shadows and on background [at the White House], it’s quite another when you can do so freely and with no other constraints on your time. This is his full-time job and central point of focus now.”