WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White supremacists and neo-Nazis have rarely, if ever, in recent history been so enthusiastic about a presidential appointment as Donald Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon to be his chief White House strategist.
Before he took over as chief executive of Trump’s campaign in August and led it to victory last week, Bannon headed Breitbart News, a website and voice for the alt-right movement, a loose right-wing confederation that includes hardcore nationalists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.
Five days after Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump rewarded Bannon, 62, a former Goldman Sachs banker and a Navy veteran, by appointing him senior counselor and chief strategist - jobs not subject to U.S. Senate confirmation.
Democrats, rights activists and minority groups were outraged and said Trump, himself accused of racism and misogyny during the campaign, had just flung open the White House doors to hatemongers. Many urged him to reconsider.
“Bringing Steve Bannon into the White House is an alarming signal that President-elect Trump remains committed to the hateful and divisive vision that defined his campaign,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement on Monday.
“There must be no sugar-coating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration,” Pelosi said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) also denounced Bannon.
Bannon, who grew up in a Democratic family, has a reputation of trying to tear down a Republican Party establishment that he deemed too soft and too entrenched.
As a senior adviser to the Republican Trump, Bannon will be expected by far-right groups to champion their views and make sure that Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, keeps such campaign promises as building a wall on the southern U.S. border, cracking down on Muslims entering the country and restricting the influx of Syrian war refugees.
”Perhaps ‘The Donald’ is for real,” Rocky Suhayda, chairman of the American Nazi Party, told CNN.
David Duke, a longtime leader of Ku Klux Klan movements, and Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who runs the National Policy Institute, were among the leading alt-right figures to praise Bannon’s appointment.
In remarks published in the New York Times on Tuesday, Bannon ascribed his interest in populism and American nationalism to a desire to curb what he views as the corrosive effects of globalization. He rejected what he called the “ethno-nationalist” tendencies of some in the movement.
“It’s not that some people on the margins, as in any movement, aren’t bad guys - racists, anti-Semites. But that’s irrelevant,” he told the Times.
Political commentator Armstrong Willliams, a close associate of former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, said Bannon was “one of the finest and most honorable people I’ve ever met” and not bigoted in any way.
The Trump campaign had been struggling to manage Trump’s unconventional candidacy when Bannon took over. He stayed behind the scenes and devised the strategy for the final days of the campaign that kept Trump on message and enabled him to upset Clinton in crucial states such as Michigan.
It was Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who invited three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault to attend a presidential debate in hopes of unnerving Hillary Clinton. Bannon, looking typically unkempt with mussed hair and stubbly chin, grinned from the back of the room as Trump and the women held their pre-debate news conference.
“Bannon is a legitimately sinister figure,” Ben Shapiro, who had been editor-in-chief of Breitbart under Bannon, wrote in August on the dailywire.com conservative news website which he founded.
“He is a vindictive, nasty figure ... He will attempt to ruin anyone who impedes his unending ambition and he will use anyone bigger than he is - for example, Donald Trump - to get where he wants to go,” Shapiro wrote.
While Bannon was at Breitbart, it had stories with headlines such as “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” “Political correctness protects Muslim rape culture” and “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.” The site’s pro-Trump agenda featured speculative stories questioning Hillary Clinton’s health and accusing her close aide Huma Abedin of being a Saudi spy.
Bannon was charged with domestic violence and battery in 1996 after his then-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, said he grabbed her by the throat and arm during an argument. The case was dropped when she did not appear in court. In 2007 Piccard said in court documents Bannon did not like the school the girls attended because it had too many “whiny brat” Jewish students.
Bannon had a varied and profitable career before joining Breitbart. He earned degrees from Virginia Tech, Georgetown University and Harvard Business School and served four years in the Navy. It was his Navy experience, he said, that led him to shed his family’s Democratic allegiance and become an admirer of Republican Ronald Reagan.
He was at Goldman Sachs before starting his own investment firm, which specialized in media. Through negotiating a studio sale, he obtained a stake in the royalties for the popular television show “Seinfeld,” a money-making powerhouse in syndication.
He was an executive producer of the feature movies “Titus” and “The Indian Runner” before producing, directing or writing conservative-oriented documentaries such as “Clinton Cash” about the Clinton Foundation, “Generation Zero” about the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 and “The Undefeated” on former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Reporting by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller