Republican members of Congress and Donald Trump’s staffers have accused the media of overreacting to the President-elect’s decision to appoint Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon to serve as his chief strategist.
As Bannon’s detractors have pointed out, he infused Trump’s campaign rhetoric with language condemned by civil rights groups as anti-Semitic and oversaw a website that served as “the platform” for the white nationalist misogynists who make up the alt-right. While his appointment was decried by pundits, political strategists and those same civil rights groups, Trump’s allies insist their concerns are overblown.
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told reporters that she was “personally offended” by suggestions that Bannon represented the alt-right, even though he has proudly said that his website does. Conway said she would not “manage a campaign where that would be one of the going philosophies.”
“I worked very closely with Steve Bannon. He’s been the general of this campaign. And frankly people should look at the full resume,” she told journalists in the lobby of New York’s Trump Tower. “He has got a Harvard Business degree. He’s a naval officer. He has success in entertainment. I don’t know if you’re aware of that. And he certainly was a Goldman Sachs managing partner. Brilliant tactician.”
Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee who was named Sunday as Trump’s chief of staff, also pointed to Bannon’s traditional resume to argue that he didn’t personally hold anti-Semitic or racist views.
“The guy I know is a guy that isn’t any of those things,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Today Show.” “The guy I know is a guy sitting in an office all day yesterday, talking about hiring and in the last few months, this is a guy who has exhibited none of those qualities. Here’s a guy who’s Harvard Business School, he was a 10-year naval officer, London School of Economics, I believe. He is a guy who is very, very smart, very temperate.”
Bannon’s ex-wife accused him in court documents of making anti-Semitic remarks and arguing that their twin daughters should not attend the elite Archer School in Los Angeles because “he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.” When he first joined the Trump campaign as CEO in August, several ex-Breitbart representatives and editors warned that he was a “negative” force who oversaw the site’s evolution into “the alt-right’s go-to website, with [Milo] Yiannopoulos pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness.”
Yet Trump’s allies and advisors insist Bannon should be judged purely on his success steering the President-elect to victory.
Former House Speaker and Trump advisor Newt Gingrich praised Bannon as a “great strategist” and said the mainstream media was trying to undermine the President-elect’s success.
“They are the mortal opponents of what Trump is trying to achieve,” Gingrich said of the media during an interview on Fox News. “They now want to come back and say that anything that anybody ever published in Breitbart is Steve Bannon. That’s baloney.”
RNC member Randy Evans took a similar line on CNN, saying he “absolutely” trusted Bannon and praising him for having “a connection with what American—average Americans think.”
Presented with a handful of Breitbart headlines, including one about birth control making women “unattractive and crazy,” Evans said that asking Bannon to answer for the stories published on the site was an attack ripped “from the talking points of the Democratic National Committee.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) told MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson that holding Bannon “truly accountable for all the headlines on Breitbart would be to hold you accountable for the headlines on NBC.”
“When the cameras aren’t rolling and the reporters aren’t there I had the opportunity to be with Mr. Bannon and know the soft-spoken nature he is, the quiet counselor he is,” Meadows insisted.
Senior Republican leaders, whose careers Bannon urged his reporters to derail, also defended Trump’s decision to appoint the media mogul, although they did not offer him personal praise.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), the chief target of Bannon’s loathing, told CNN on Sunday that he will “work well with whoever” Trump picks for his administration.
“I don’t know Steve Bannon,” he said. “I have no concerns. I trust Donald’s judgment and I think he’s going to pick who he thinks will best serve him.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) echoed Ryan in saying he didn’t personally know Bannon but that it was Trump’s prerogative to appoint him.
“The president-elect always gets to pick his team,” McCarthy told congressional reporters during a Monday scrum in which he was repeatedly asked about Bannon, according to The Hill.
McCarthy acknowledged he disagreed with Breitbart stories like one labeling former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), a victim of an assassination attempt, “the gun control movement’s human shield.”
Asked by Fox News’ Chad Pergram if Bannon’s selection meant that the GOP was ceding “moral ground” to push their agenda through, McCarthy did not offer a direct response.
“We’re less than one week after this election. We’re just now coming back into session. The President-elect is putting together his team to go out there,” McCarthy said, according to The Hill. “A lot of people he’ll have to select will have to go through [Senate] confirmation. Our job here is to get this economy moving again.”
“So it does seem like you are ceding that moral ground,” Pergram reportedly replied.
“For one thing, don’t put words in my mouth,” McCarthy said. “I answered your question. The president has the right to select the team, just as I do in my office.”