Steve Bannon is disrupting democracy
As a single mom with a full-time job, Wendy Ahrenkiel had little time for politics. But after the 2020 election, when Joe Biden was declared President, she felt cheated — and found the time.
Ahrenkiel, 47, has heard the arguments in the mainstream media about how claims of a stolen election in 2020 are unsupported by credible evidence. But she still doesn’t buy it.
“I thought that there’s a lot of funny things that went on with the election,” she told CNN. “That made me just do my own research.”
That research led her to talk politics with friends — many of them moms like her — who clued her in to a show called “War Room,” hosted by a man with whom she was only vaguely familiar: Stephen K. Bannon.
Bannon doesn’t just touch on the election canard, he pounds it with a sledgehammer day after day on “War Room” — a program that reaches audiences online and on air.
The audio version is usually among the top three Apple political podcasts in the United States.
The investigation into the January 6 Capitol riot, Bannon tells his audience, is a “clown show.” The Biden administration is abetting a “criminal invasion of the southern border.” The Democrats want to de-platform and humiliate you, the listener, and they want to “destroy the United States of America.”
Bannon goes beyond grousing. He rouses.
Ahrenkiel heeded the call. She and her friends started attending meetings put on by their local Republican Party in DeKalb County, Georgia.
From there, Ahrenkiel — a medical device salesperson — went all in, putting her name in the running for a state House seat in her affluent district in the northern Atlanta suburbs. As the only GOP candidate in the November race, she is now the party’s nominee.
Her plunge into politics is precisely what Bannon is asking of his audience, which he has dubbed “the War Room Posse.” Bannon’s hope is they will become foot soldiers in an army of conservatives who will join his mission to torch the establishment wing of the Republican Party, replace it with a new crop of MAGA-minded candidates and crush the Democratic Party by any means necessary.
Launched in late 2019 during the run-up to Trump’s first impeachment, “War Room” is a low-budget, high-profile show with Bannon as the host. The format is loose, with Bannon interspersing his interviews with personalities, politicians and conspiracy theorists on the right with his own outbursts of inflamed commentary.
The show is a hefty contributor to a grassroots surge that is sending political neophytes to city councils, school boards, and state legislatures, as well as to the polls to oversee voting — largely out of a sense that the nation has turned against them, and out of a baseless suspicion that the election infrastructure is rigged.
A spearhead in the movement to shift the Republican Party away from the country club and toward the working class, Bannon is a master of bumper-sticker messaging, and a bloodhound for the kind of culture-war bait that infuriates, excites or frightens the base: Drag queens reading to kids. A globalist-created recession. Destruction of the nuclear family. The corporate “woketocracy” treading on the working-class “deplorables.”
But no wedge issue has been more costly to the country than the stolen election myth, and Bannon — former President Donald Trump’s one-time strategist in the White House — has been unflinching in his willingness to exploit it to the fullest, even as the consequences pile up. With election workers quitting under the strain of severe harassment, legions of election deniers running for public office and statehouses passing new laws that put partisans in charge of elections and make it more difficult to vote, the stage has been set for electoral chaos.
Bannon faces contempt-of-Congress charges for defying a subpoena seeking information about his role in pushing Trump to undermine the 2020 election results, and could face additional charges in New York for his alleged involvement in a scam in which donations for building a portion of the border wall between the US and Mexico were pocketed. Trump pardoned Bannon on federal fraud charges relating to the same alleged scheme, but that doesn’t affect state investigations.
Yet, far from being contrite or cautious, Bannon is aggressively downplaying the gravity of the historic attempt to subvert American democracy.
He, of course, isn’t the only right-wing propagandist moving the needle.
But unlike other firebrand personalities, Bannon isn’t just tapping fear and resentment for ratings or money; he uses his show as a strategic vehicle.
Tucker Carlson has essentially been labeled an entertainer by attorneys representing him at Fox News who successfully argued in a slander case that his hyperbolic commentary shouldn’t be taken seriously. Alex Jones — a blustery pro-Trump conspiracy theorist — once admitted in a deposition that a Democratic US president would actually be better for his business.
Bannon wants to win, and applies “War Room” — and its audience — as a means to that end.
“This show is not entertainment,” Bannon told his listeners. “This show is hard work.”
After a long and varied career that included a stint as a Hollywood filmmaker and another as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, Bannon, at 68, isn’t fading into the background. He and a small band of staffers produce hours of bellicose content six days a week in his “War Room” studio, located in a Washington, DC, townhouse.
Much of the material is straight-up disinformation: The Biden regime is “illegitimate” and “put in there by the Chinese Communist Party.” The left cares more about the babies of illegal immigrants than the babies of Americans. The Covid-19 vaccines are deadly. Open borders are bringing in wave upon wave of “invaders” who will take jobs and vote for Democrats.
It’s the stuff of extremism. And yet the show is a mandatory stop for candidates hitching their wagon to the “Make America Great Again” train.
“If you’re running for office in the Republican primary these days, you probably want to sit down with Steve Bannon on his podcast,” said David Chalian, CNN’s political director. “I would argue Steve Bannon right now in this time is setting the agenda — even more than Donald Trump.”
In the stormy aftermath of the 2020 election, a thin line of principled officials served as the levee that kept the Trump tsunami from sweeping away American democracy.
Bannon did his best to puncture their credibility.
“The guys in Maricopa County, you can hide, but you’re gonna be found,” he said of the Republican-majority board of supervisors in Arizona who stood up to bogus claims of election fraud.
“The people in Georgia have no guts if they don’t recall that guy immediately,” he said of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the Republican who rebuffed Trump’s request to “find” the votes he needed to win the Peach State. An Atlanta grand jury is investigating those election subversion efforts.
Now Bannon has put himself at the center of an ambitious, grassroots push to replace that bulwark with a new national election apparatus — one whose personnel, from top to bottom, buy the lie that Trump won the 2020 election.
Put another way, Bannon and the ascendant MAGA wing of the GOP are trying to control who polices elections. That plan already produced a stunning result this spring in the primaries, when a pair of election deniers were named as GOP nominees for secretary of state and attorney general in Michigan, a key swing state.
The secretary-of-state nominee, Kristina Karamo, has said Trump won Michigan — despite his having lost by over 150,000 votes — and that her opponent, Democratic incumbent Jocelyn Benson, should be jailed over the “rigged and stolen” election.
She and the GOP attorney-general nominee, Matthew DePerno, are recurring guests on War Room.
“If we don’t clean up our election system, we functionally no longer have an operational, constitutional republic left,” Karamo told Bannon in April.
At the heart of the effort is a term whose dry title belies its potentially historic ramifications: “precinct strategy” — something Bannon once called “the whole purpose of this show.”
Precincts are the basic building blocks of voting — a neighborhood or area anchored by a polling place. Each precinct has partisan volunteers, who are often called precinct chairs or precinct committeemen.
Their duties range from the mundane — knocking on doors to get out the vote — to the consequential. Depending on the state, this can include recruiting poll watchers, appointing election judges or even, as in Michigan, deciding primary winners for statewide offices such as secretary of state, lieutenant governor or attorney general. The poll watchers can challenge the ballots of individual voters they find suspicious. The state-level politicians have the power to challenge elections.
In Michigan this spring, the MAGA movement took full advantage of the state’s uniquely powerful precinct committees. After being encouraged by DePerno to “storm” county conventions, delegates installed DePerno and Karamo as the party’s standard-bearers at the state convention in Grand Rapids.
Bannon brought the precinct strategy to his audience by introducing them to a Phoenix attorney named Dan Schultz, who published a book about it in 2010. Back then, few were paying attention to the musings of Schultz, who has said precinct strategy is the only way to “take back” the country without resorting to violence.
But Bannon seemed to be listening. In December of 2020, not long after Trump lost his bid for reelection, he brought Schultz out of the shadows and onto his show for the first time.
“Dan is a beloved figure,” Bannon said. “Talk about a honey badger. Talk about a guy that grinds.”
Since then, Schultz — an emphatic election denier who has said “everybody and their dog knows that this election was fraudulent” — has appeared on War Room at least 40 times, CNN has found.
Schultz, who didn’t respond to CNN’s requests for comment, doesn’t always get into the minutiae of precinct politics on Bannon’s show. But he often drops a factoid that he says incumbent so-called RINOs — Republicans In Name Only — “don’t want you to know”: Roughly half of the 400,000 GOP precinct committee posts nationwide are sitting vacant. In other words, he claims, the party is there for the taking.
“We have to take over the party and there’s only one way to do it,” Schultz said on War Room. “The precinct committeemen elect everybody in the party all the way up to the RNC (Republican National Committee).”
Bannon has been touting precinct strategy as a way for the MAGA movement to spark a “populist revolt” and start “taking over all the elections.”
Generating even more heat to the concept is how Bannon’s version of precinct strategy lumps in another objective: stoking the flames of fury over hot-button topics — including parental fears over teaching of topics like LGBTQ rights and systemic racism in public schools.
“Here’s democracy at work: It’s the mothers going to the school boards for critical race theory — to combat it,” he said. “It’s people volunteering and signing up for as election officials, poll watchers and people in the rooms counting. That’s democracy. That’s applied populism.”
When Stacy Altiery heard about precinct strategy on War Room, she felt empowered.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m calling everybody I know. Did you even know that we had a precinct in my neighborhood?’” she told CNN.
Altiery — who, like her friend Wendy Ahrenkiel, became a precinct chair in DeKalb County — is proudly MAGA.
She sends her children to a private school in suburban Atlanta. She feels nostalgic about the days when public schools allowed Christmas pageants and when refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance was, in her mind, less common. She says her politics are defined by putting “America first” and believes Trump made patriotism “in style again.”
But what triggered her interest in politics was a dangerous falsehood: that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
“If you believe that that was a safe and fair election, then I mean, I just can’t help you,” Altiery, 54, told CNN, repeating a lie that 70% of her fellow Republicans believe.
The solution, Bannon tells such listeners, is to take matters into their own hands by diving into local politics across the country to take control of the election process and keep Democrats from “cheating.”
“We want you to sign up to be a volunteer election official — not just to be a poll watcher, to be in the room,” Bannon has said.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican elections attorney, told CNN there is nothing inherently wrong with the civic engagement — that getting involved at the polls is “actually the healthy outlet that’s supposed to occur.”
“The question is what people who doubt elections actually do in the polling place. And if — as people go to vote to cast their rightful ballot — they’re stopped or harassed or hassled, then that becomes the problem,” said Ginsberg, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Bannon’s idea of precinct strategy, he added, “starts from the point of view that elections are inaccurate — maybe corruptly so, and tries to put people in place in the precincts to be able to run the elections.”
Inspired by listening to Bannon on the radio, Altiery joined the county GOP in early 2021, after the election left her feeling “empty and like I needed to do something.” Among her duties as precinct chair is helping to recruit her precinct’s poll watchers, whose tasks include monitoring voters for suspicious behavior.
Precinct strategy has generated an unlikely buzz in rightwing circles, so much so that it got the ultimate shout-out earlier this year.
“The ‘Precinct Strategy’ is enlisting America First Patriots to their local County Republican Party committees,” Donald Trump said in a statement in February. “If members of our Great movement start getting involved (that means YOU becoming a precinct committeeman for your voting precinct), we can take back our great Country from the ground up.”
Republican Party leaders across the country say they’ve experienced a tidal wave of interest from people wanting to participate at the precinct level.
CNN reached out to GOP leaders in dozens of the largest counties in mostly battleground states. All 22 county parties that responded said they witnessed a significant spike in involvement. Some say Bannon was a catalyst.
“A lot of the people who come in and want to join are saying, ‘I saw the precinct strategy,’ or ‘I watched Steve Bannon’s War Room,’ and that’s what’s driving them,’” said Jim Waurishuk, the GOP chair in Hillsborough County, Florida. “Three quarters of the people in our party watch it regularly.”
Many of the newcomers are focused on elections, said Dion Heimink, a vice chair of the GOP in Pima County, Arizona.
“What are the issues that people most care about? There are lot,” Heimink told CNN. “Inflation, the border, the Biden administration policies. … But probably first and foremost the thing that I hear most frequently is election integrity.
“A lot of people felt that the whole mail-in ballot process in the last election was rife with fraud,” Heimink added.
In Bannon’s mind, the paragon of election integrity is Tina Peters, a county clerk in Colorado who was criminally indicted in March stemming from allegations that she granted unauthorized access to Mesa County voting machines in an effort to prove unfounded theories of election fraud. The breach resulted in sensitive information being published in a QAnon-affiliated Telegram channel. Peters, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, is a frequent guest on War Room.
“Tina Peters has put it all on the line for her, for her state and her country,” Bannon said by way of introduction. “She’s one of the great heroes out there today.”
Peters lost her June primary bid to become Colorado’s secretary of state. But other War Room darlings running for secretary of state are still in the mix, such as Jim Marchant, a vocal election denier from Nevada who beat out six GOP primary candidates in June, and Trump-endorsed Mark Finchem, a Republican Congressman from Arizona who was spotted in a “Stop the Steal” crowd outside the US Capitol on January 6 and has been subpoenaed by the House select committee, has espoused QAnon-tinged conspiracy theories and publicly called for decertifying Arizona’s 2020 election results. The Arizona GOP primaries are on August 2.
Ron Filipkowski, a Florida criminal defense lawyer who tracks Steve Bannon and other far-right influencers, says Bannon wants the GOP to control the apparatus that runs elections, “which is why he cares so much about supervisor-of-elections and secretary-of-state races.”
“He wants to install or help install hundreds of those people around the country that are running the elections,” Filipkowski told CNN. “And they’re also hiring the staff and they’re hiring the poll workers. And that’s how you wreck a democracy from the bottom up.”
Shortly after the 2020 election, when Doug Mastriano was a little-known state politician with far-right leanings in Pennsylvania, Steve Bannon saw promise.
That’s when “War Room” livestreamed an election “hearing” hosted by the state senator in Gettysburg, where Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s onetime personal attorney and a lead architect of his attempt to overturn the election results, shared sham evidence. And where Trump spread election lies via videofeed.
By mid-May, Mastriano was the GOP nominee in the governor’s race and a national figure of the MAGA movement. His victory speech was so aligned with daily “War Room” fare, it could have been written by Bannon himself.
In it, Mastriano, 58, promised to abolish critical race theory — an academic concept that has been politicized and co-opted as an umbrella term for recognition of systemic racism in American society — from public schools. State officials have confirmed that it’s not part of the K-12 curriculum. He also called for prohibiting transgender students from using restrooms that don’t align with their assigned birth gender and ending vaccine “jab for job” mandates. He blasted the establishment and played up his blue-collar bona fides.
“The people of America, the people of Pennsylvania are tired of being trodden upon,” Mastriano said. “We are no longer asleep.”
Bannon, who often refers to the modern MAGA movement as the “army of the awakened,” had Mastriano on his show the day after the primary contest. Mastriano thanked Bannon for “helping to introduce me to Pennsylvania, and America as well.”
Bannon’s early discovery of Mastriano illustrates his gift for not only shaping the narrative, but also spreading it far and wide. As Trump’s campaign chief executive in 2016, he understood that staying laser-focused on Hillary Clinton-bashing was key to holding the base. Now, Bannon’s focus is closer to the ground — on spotting, grooming and amplifying populist candidates at the local and state levels who detest the establishment and jump headlong into the culture wars.
Mastriano is among the more than 100 Republicans seeking office who have appeared on “War Room” — most of them multiple times — since the November 2020 election.
Some have cultivated a kind of outlandishly trollish posture. The show’s most frequent guest running for office is former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, a leading contender for US Senate, followed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiracy theory-peddling Georgia Republican, according to a CNN analysis.
Greitens, who Bannon refers to as a “MAGA champion,” posted a campaign ad in which he totes a shotgun and pistol while accompanying men in tactical gear who bust down the door of a suburban home in search of so-called RINOs. Then Greitens — who resigned from office four years ago amid multiple scandals (none of which led to criminal charges) — invites supporters to “join the MAGA crew” and “get a RINO hunting permit.”
At least 10 of those candidates on “War Room” — including Mastriano — were participants in either the Trump rally or the march on the Capitol last year on January 6. Some of those January 6 rally participants, such as GOP secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem of Arizona and J.R. Majewski — the GOP nominee for a US House seat from Ohio — have spread conspiracy theories, including QAnon content, online.
The overwhelming majority of the 100-plus politicians have dutifully echoed the now-pervasive, false narrative that the election was stolen by fraud, and that the Biden administration is illegitimate. Bannon’s “War Room” served as a megaphone.
Joshua Green, the author of a 2017 book about the partnership between Trump and Bannon, called “War Room” a “vector of Trump’s political power.”
“Bannon can use it to shape the narrative of Republican politics,” he told CNN. Since Trump entered the political scene, he said, “Republican politicians themselves — they don’t shape that narrative anymore. People like Steve Bannon do.”
Bannon’s obsession with mining the strong populist undercurrents of American politics predates his relationship with Trump.
In 2012, Bannon took over the ultra-partisan, right-wing website Breitbart after its founder, Andrew Breitbart, died. Under Bannon, Breitbart not only relentlessly attacked GOP leaders he considered too moderate, it experimented with the untapped power of online troll armies, whose caustic comments beneath the charged stories became notorious.
Breitbart ran easily debunked but incendiary, often-viral stories — claiming Islamic prayer rugs were being found along the Mexican border; calling criticism of the Confederate flag a move “to obliterate the Southern identity;” blaming Muslim refugees for sexual assaults in Europe; arguing that “Third World cultures” sexualize young girls; and so on.
Bannon, Green said, generally wanted to shatter the “liberal political pieties” that establishment Republicans were afraid to touch.
“He believes that there’s power in chaos,” Green said.
In a hunt for the perfect populist candidate for US President during his Breitbart years, Bannon considered far-right stalwarts like Lou Dobbs and Jeff Sessions. The hope, he said in a 2019 “Frontline” interview, was to turn the GOP into a “worker-based party.”
But in 2015, Bannon at last found the perfect vessel — Donald Trump.
“When he starts talking about the Mexican rapists and everything like that, I go, ‘Oh, my God,’” Bannon said in the interview, reflecting on the early days of the campaign. “They’re going to go nuts.”
Bannon went on: “So you finally have a guy that’s speaking in a nonpolitical vernacular, and you can tell he’s connecting with people already in the rallies. I said, this is our guy. He’s a very imperfect instrument, but he’s an armor-piercing shell, OK?”
Miles Taylor, a former senior Trump administration official who anonymously wrote a 2018 New York Times op-ed and a subsequent book critical of Trump, called the Bannon-Trump team a “marriage of convenience.”
The two men had a kind of codependence, insiders say.
Ben Harnwell, the international editor of “War Room,” said that Bannon couldn’t have won the 2016 campaign with a different candidate, and that Trump couldn’t have won with a different campaign chief.
The victory landed Bannon in Trump’s White House as an adviser to the President, though he was fired less than a year later.
“Had Donald Trump not made that decision to let Steve go, he would have won in 2020,” Harnwell told CNN.
That symbiosis, coupled with Bannon’s shrewd knack for spin, may have saved the 2016 Trump campaign from collapse during its darkest hour.
When The Washington Post published damning footage showing Trump boasting to TV host Billy Bush that he grabbed women by the genitals, there was a mass exodus from campaign headquarters.
“All of a sudden, everyone disappeared from the office, all the RNC people disappeared from multiple buildings,” said Brad Parscale, who worked alongside Bannon on Trump’s 2016 campaign and managed part of his 2020 reelection campaign. “You know, they thought it was over.”
As Republican luminaries — including the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona — turned their backs on Trump, Bannon embraced the challenge.
“He told me, ‘We need to have another story competing with that one,’” Green said.
While a media storm raged around him, Bannon quietly worked on a plan ahead of the second debate between Clinton and Trump.
First, Bannon proposed that Trump invite to the debate three women who’d accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, along with the sexual assault victim of a man Hillary Clinton represented as a public defender, to sit in the Trump family box. When debate organizers blocked that stunt, Bannon threw together a news conference just hours ahead of the event, allowing the women to repeat their accusations while Trump sat alongside them, ignoring questions shouted at him. (Bill Clinton has denied the accusations.)
Bannon’s move was broadly condemned for using accusations about her husband to tarnish Clinton — but it worked. Not only did it distract the media, it gave Trump supporters a rebuttal.
Parscale remembers seeing an image of Bannon captured by a news photographer at the event.
“If you look at the smirk on his face at that moment, you’ll see the genius of Steve Bannon,” he told CNN. “He had controlled every moment in that narrative.”
But it was also a sign of Bannon’s focus.
“One of Bannon’s great achievements in the 2016 campaign was that he came in and got Trump to focus just for those last two or three months on attacking Hillary Clinton and attacking US elites every day, day in and day out,” Green said. “Bannon would be in his ear giving him these kinds of attacks, and it kept Trump from veering off course.”
Bannon is applying that same focus now to his show, and to finding the Trump imitators who aspire to go out into the world and take over elections.
Take Mastriano: If he wins the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania this November, he’ll appoint the swing state’s next secretary of state — the official in charge of the state’s election apparatus. He has said the Republican-controlled legislature should control which presidential electors are sent to DC. He has talked about decertifying voting machines and making every Pennsylvania voter re-register.
Other guests of Bannon’s — all of whom pound the drum for his fraud narrative — include GOP secretary of state candidates Finchem of Arizona; Karamo of Michigan; Diego Morales of Indiana; and Marchant of Nevada. All four are part of a coalition of “America First” Republican secretary of state candidates who promise — or threaten, depending on your perspective — to take an ax to mail-in voting and early voting, enact other measures to restrict voting or intervene in how votes are counted. Marchant introduced the coalition on “War Room” in January.
“We’ve got to learn what they did in 2020 in order to go forward and keep it from happening in 2022,” Marchant said on that episode.
“When we have people in there watching what they’re doing, you’re going to get a fair count,” he said. “As long as you can get rid of these mail-in ballots — you’re gonna have a fair count.”
Their conversation happened more than a year after the election. And despite a mountain range of signs that the election was not stolen — dozens of election-fraud lawsuits dismissed by judges, many of them Republican; the head of Trump’s Justice Department saying no widespread fraud occurred; Republican election authorities certifying results in states like Georgia and Arizona — Bannon was not only helping to build a narrative that said otherwise, but was also using the claim to rally a now-formidable movement.
It’s a false claim that swiftly prompted legislative action around the country that experts have called “election subversion.” In the aftermath of the 2020 election, more than a dozen states passed laws that essentially put roadblocks in the most accessible paths to voting: by mail, by neighborhood drop-box, by mobile unit, all of which tended to maximize voting by minorities, who are more likely to favor Democrats. Some states — such as Georgia and Arizona again — increased the ability of partisan politicians to keep an eye on elections.
And it’s a false claim that would fuel a bloody, chaotic attack that pitted American versus American in hand-to-hand combat on the steps and in the venerated halls of the US Capitol.
On the eve of January 6, 2021, Bannon was firing on all cylinders — stoking the fury of the base while whispering in the ear of the President.
During his standard four hours of daily podcasting, he primed the pump for chaos.
“We’re in a war right now,” Bannon said on the morning of January 5, striking a tone of urgency.
Pouring accelerant on the lie that Trump was the winner of the 2020 election, he insisted it was “the biggest landslide in American political history.”
“Just understand this: All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” he said in the same episode. “It’s going to be moving. It’s going to be quick.“
“We’re converging on a point of attack,” he said in another episode later in the day. “It’s coming to a head tomorrow.”
But Bannon didn’t stop at agitating his audience that day; he commiserated with Trump himself.
Bannon had at least two calls with Trump on January 5. The first known call, which lasted 11 minutes, happened in the morning before his show; the second, which lasted six minutes, took place in the evening, according to White House phone logs obtained by the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot.
After wrapping up the show, Bannon made his way to a suite in the upscale Willard hotel, a historic home to political dealmaking across the street from the White House, where he joined an inner circle of Trump confidantes, according to the book “Peril” by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. The group had established a makeshift “war room” — a command center to manipulate the levers of power. Those who reportedly cycled through included attorneys Giuliani and John Eastman.
There, Bannon joined Giuliani, Eastman and Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn, who was working the phones in an attempt to persuade members of Congress to block the electoral count, according to the book, which notes that Bannon took a call from Trump.
It was a return, in a sense, to the job from which he’d been fired — White House strategist — although not in an official capacity.
During that call, Trump complained to Bannon about a meeting he’d had with Pence. The vice president, Trump told Bannon, “was very arrogant,” according to the book. In another call a week earlier, Bannon urged Trump to return to the White House from a Mar-a-Lago trip to prepare for January 6 — and told him, according to the book, “You’ve got to call Pence off the fking ski slopes and get him back here today. This is a crisis.”
Bannon saw January 6 — the date Congress would certify the election results — as a day of reckoning for Trump.
His behind-the-scenes machinations drew the attention of the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot, resulting in a subpoena seeking details on the Willard meeting, conversations with Trump about the rally and other related matters.
To defend himself, Bannon has gone on the offensive, refusing to comply with the subpoena’s demands — thereby triggering contempt of Congress charges — and sending “revenge subpoenas” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the House select committee.
But while Bannon initially refused to testify to the January 6 select committee on the grounds that Trump had blocked his testimony by invoking executive privilege, Bannon reversed course earlier this month after Trump waived the privilege. In a July 9 letter to Bannon, Trump said his former chief strategist was now free to “testify truthfully and fairly” to the panel, which Trump wrote is composed of “Thugs and Hacks.” The panel and federal prosecutors have argued that the privilege claim never applied to Bannon’s subpoena in the first place.
Bannon, who was ordered by a judge in June to stand trial, has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges. He is set to go to trial Monday.
Although the investigation is underway, details have emerged about his role in devising a kind of Hail Mary plan that, had it succeeded, would have let Trump seize an unearned second term — and plunged the country into a constitutional crisis.
Bannon had a football-inspired nickname for the plan: “The Green Bay Sweep.” Named after a famous play designed by legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, the metaphorical plan called for handing the “ball” to Pence, who was to block certification of the election. Clearing Pence’s path would be an offensive line of lawyers, Congress members and state lawmakers who would, through various legal and procedural maneuvers, ensure that Trump was the winner.
“We’ve called the play; now let’s run the play,” Bannon said on a January 5 episode of “War Room.” “We’re gonna run the Green Bay Sweep tomorrow.”
Up to that point, Bannon’s “War Room” had been a hub for the same Willard inner circle — Giuliani, Eastman and Epshteyn — to sell the lie of a stolen election to the MAGA masses, with claims of widespread voter fraud, voting machine hacks and corrupt election officials.
On a November 24 episode, Epshteyn played up Giuliani’s upcoming Gettysburg election “hearing” and called Biden’s presidential win a joke: “Joe Biden had four people in a bunch of circles at his rallies. President Trump had tens of thousands. And you think all of a sudden he’s beating him by 150,000 in Michigan?” (A Michigan judge dismissed Trump’s election fraud lawsuit in May 2021.)
“I’m sorry, dead people can’t vote. Well, 8,000 of them voted in Arizona,” Giuliani said, falsely, on January 2. (The state Attorney General’s office identified a total of nine fraudulent votes in the 2020 election.)
Bannon, Chalian said, is “a really smart guy. He knows who won the 2020 election.”
Even before the November 2020 election, Bannon was celebrating the idea that Trump would attempt to stay in power even if he didn’t win. In a newly released audio recording published last week by Mother Jones, Bannon can be heard telling associates on October 31 — three days before the election — that “What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right. He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s the winner, he’s just gonna say he’s the winner.”
In public, Bannon ratcheted up the rhetoric, speaking to his audience in dire terms that evoked violence and war.
A few days after Election Day, Bannon got himself kicked off Twitter by posting a video in which he states he would like to put the heads of infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray “on pikes” near the White House as a warning to federal “bureaucrats.”
When promoting the upcoming rallies on January 6, he drew tortured analogies, equating the idea of fighting for Trump with storming the beaches of Normandy in World War II, or of the readiness of George Washington’s soldiers in the Revolutionary War.
“There’s no vacation at the Battle of the Bulge of Bastogne,” he told his audience. “There was no vacation at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. There was no vacation in the revolution when we had the great attack at Trenton.”
The meat of Bannon’s Green Bay Sweep idea was first laid out by Eastman, then an obscure former law professor and former dean of a small private college in Southern California who had penned a now-infamous memo to Trump laying out how Trump could hang on to power.
Bannon had “Brother Eastman” on the show multiple times. Just as Bannon has put Dan Schultz’s wonkish precinct strategy into punchier terms, he similarly made Eastman’s arcane legal analysis more palatable to his audience.
“John Eastman, you’re the lead sled dog here,” Bannon said, introducing his guest. “What should people be looking for?”
Eastman advised “War Room” listeners to put pressure on their state legislators to decertify their slate of electors.
Bannon used “War Room” to apply some of his own political pressure — this time on Pence himself, after Trump grumbled to Bannon about his meeting with the Vice President.
“Play’s been called, Mike Pence,” he said on the morning of January 6, referring to the Green Bay Sweep. “Run the play … Just do your duty.”
As the morning wore on, Bannon’s exhortations to Pence grew even more ominous.
“It’s either going to go to Pence doing his duty,” he said. “Or it may devolve into something else.”
Pence — whose legal team found no evidence to support Trump’s vote fraud claims — didn’t buckle under the mounting pressure from his own party, declaring in a statement that “my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority.”
Trump tweeted that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” — and as Bannon predicted, all hell broke loose.
“Hang Mike Pence!” rioters chanted as they stormed the Capitol looking for the Vice President, amid a historic melee that would leave several dead and more than 100 Capitol police officers wounded. Bannon recently told a journalist with The Atlantic that he was in the “War Room” studio during the riot.
The hearings have uncovered evidence that the election lie was used by Trump to allegedly scam donors, and how a number of lieutenants in Trump’s inner orbit found his election conspiracy theories to be ridiculous — or “bullshit,” in the words of former Attorney General Bill Barr.
But the hearings have also revealed the human toll — most notably in the emotional testimonies of a Georgia election worker named Ruby Freeman, who Trump called a “professional vote scammer and a hustler” in a recorded call, and her daughter, who also served as an election worker that year. Both women were subjected to a barrage of menacing threats: “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920,” one message read, according to Freeman’s daughter, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss.
Higher-ranking election officials have been targeted as well, such as the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in Arizona, which held its ground amid an onslaught of heat from the Trump camp, including Bannon.
“The question I’ve got is, the Maricopa County supervisors, what are you hiding?” Bannon said on his show in December 2020. “What’s the problem?”
It made no difference.
Bill Gates, a Republican and chair of the Maricopa County board, said he’s never seen anything like it in politics.
“There is such an intimidation factor by Steve Bannon and those around him that we would dare speak out against him, that we would dare speak against the big lie,” he told CNN. “My colleagues and I have been subjected to many threats over the past year and a half. … There was a guillotine that was set up outside of the Arizona Capitol here for the board of supervisors.”
In Georgia, a GOP candidate for governor whose campaign slogan is “Jesus, Guns and Babies” cries fraud and refuses to concede after winning just 3.4% of the votes in a primary.
In New Mexico, a rural county commission initially declines to certify the results of a primary election, citing a general feeling of distrust of state officials and Dominion voting machines before being pressured by a court order to reverse course.
In Colorado, Tina Peters — the embattled county clerk in Mesa County — claims her poor showing in the GOP primary for secretary of state was the result of “more fraud.”
These disputes — all from the May and June primaries — are an indicator that the stolen-election myth of 2020 wasn’t an anomaly, but a catalyst for a perilous new era in American politics in which election losers refuse to accept defeat.
Pumping a steady stream of oxygen into the myth is Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” which has cultivated an emerging class of ultra-MAGA politicians for whom paying lip service to Trump’s election lie has become a litmus test for electability.
“Kandiss, keep fighting this — all kind of stink down there in Georgia,” Bannon said of his occasional guest, Kandiss Taylor, the “Jesus, Guns and Babies” gubernatorial candidate who once referred to Biden in a debate as a “fraudulent pedophile.” “We’re going to get to the bottom.”
Bannon often presents himself as a student of history, and his indefatigable promotion of one of the biggest lies in modern times could alter the arc of it.
By using his star power to propel the profiles of election deniers seeking office high and low — and by trying to install election deniers in positions of electoral authority — Bannon is playing with fire in a tinderbox.
“My greatest fear is that we have — in 2022 — we have people who are elected, particularly to election boards, secretaries of state, who will essentially reject the oath of office and put their finger on the scale to tip the balance in the elections in 2024,” said Gates, the supervisor in Maricopa County, Arizona.
Although Bannon agreed to sit down for an interview with CNN for this story, he canceled without explanation and stopped responding.
When confronted by CNN’s Drew Griffin last month outside the US District Courthouse in Washington, DC — where a federal judge rejected his motion to dismiss the contempt charges — Bannon insisted that he believes in “fair and free and transparent elections,” and predicted that the MAGA movement will vanquish the Democratic Party at the ballot box in November.
“This is going to be a massive blowout like 1932,” he said, referring to how the Democrats swept both chambers of Congress and voted Franklin D. Roosevelt into the presidency. “You’re witnessing right now a political realignment like 1932. And we will govern for 100 years.”
But when asked why he pushes the stolen election lie, Bannon answered: “It’s not a lie — look at the facts.”
Here are the facts, to name a few: Trump and his allies lost or dropped all but one of the 60-plus lawsuits claiming election fraud, and the lone win related to a miniscule number of ballots in Pennsylvania. Members of Trump’s inner circle — including his campaign manager — tried in vain to dissuade him from declaring victory on election night. Trump’s White House pushed the highest levels of government to investigate conspiracy theories in an attempt to validate baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. He sought to install a little-known DOJ lawyer as attorney general in the days before the Capitol riot as top officials refused to go along with his vote fraud claims. Audits conducted in several states – including a highly partisan “forensic audit” in Arizona – affirmed Biden’s victory.
Of the more than 100 MAGA politicians who have appeared on Bannon’s “War Room,” more than two dozen have prevailed in primaries so far and more than a third are awaiting their primary races. Nearly all of those politicians have endorsed the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — and none have admitted that Biden is the legitimate winner.
Whether they’ll hold up in general elections remains to be seen. Bannon is hoping for total victory followed by scorched-earth revenge.
He has banged the drum to impeach Biden for his immigration policies at the southern border.
“We’re coming for you,” Bannon ranted last month. “We’re not prepared to let an illegitimate regime that stole an election then destroy our country by initiating and exacerbating an invasion of our country. We’re not going to allow it.”
Bannon also went after Attorney General Merrick Garland, daring him to indict Trump.
“We’re winning in November and we’re gonna impeach you and everybody around you,” Bannon fumed.
Bannon’s tirades have a performative quality, and it’s common for observers to wonder if he believes the rhetoric.
“He’s too smart a guy, I think, to really believe that Trump won that election,” said Green, whose book about Bannon is called “Devil’s Bargain.” “But at the same time, his position, his standing, his worldview, the base of his power within the Trump political universe is built on pushing the idea that the election was stolen.”
And yet, Green believes Bannon has gotten lost in his own house of mirrors.
“I think back in 2015, 2016, Bannon was very self-aware,” he told CNN. “I think he knew that what he was doing was a long shot and he was having a lot of fun. … And what we’ve seen since then is he’s sort of become the character that he used to play.”
Bannon genuinely wants to impeach Biden, and he wants to overturn the election, Green said — but what he really wants is to “steer himself into a position of political power.”
Even if it comes at the expense of American democracy.