He says that, before he became a senior adviser to the President, he was a successful player in the film industry. But what did he actually do?
Stephen K. Bannon, who maintains a precarious hold over the nativist wing of the Trump White House, honed his skills in the art of conservative persuasion in the most liberal precinct of the American imagination, Hollywood. He became himself in the byways of the movie business. These days, Bannon is a dishevelled presence in the Oval Office, but he cut a different figure in Beverly Hills, where he looked the part of a Hollywood executive—fast-talking, smartly dressed, aggressively fit, carrying himself with what one former colleague described as an “alpha swagger.” He worked out of an impressive office on Canon Drive. He was passionate and knowledgeable about film, and boasted about his connections, his production credits, and his background in mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs. He was a Republican, but not dogmatic, and he tried not to let his political beliefs get in the way of his work.
Bannon moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1987, to help Goldman expand its presence in the entertainment business. Two years later, Bannon and a senior colleague struck out on their own, opening a small investment company in Beverly Hills. According to Bannon, the firm’s clients over the next half-dozen or so years included Crédit Lyonnais, M-G-M, and PolyGram. In 1998, the company was acquired by an offshoot of the French bank Société Générale, and he remained there for a couple of years. He had brief stints at Jefferies, an investment bank, and at a talent-management company, the Firm, as a strategic adviser. By the early aughts, the former Hollywood colleague recalled, “he was sitting on Canon Drive, in his fabulous office, his bookshelves lined with military and history books, and he would take meetings all day with people, some of whom came to him for money for their movies.”
Tim Watkins, the president of a small advertising company in Maryland, was one of those people. A conservative and a devout Catholic, Watkins had an idea for a film, based on the book “Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism,” by the political consultant Peter Schweizer. As Watkins began looking for someone to help make the movie, he was introduced to Bannon. He was impressed by Bannon’s enthusiasm about Ronald Reagan, and by his Hollywood connections. Watkins showed him a trailer he had made, and Bannon “jumped in full-bore,” Watkins told me. He understood that Bannon would raise the money to produce it and would also distribute it. To Watkins, he seemed an ideal partner. “Steve was very good at whipping people up into a passion,” he said.
Before 9/11, Watkins had planned to make a traditional documentary, but by the time he started working with Bannon, he said, “something ticked in us—that life is about good versus evil, and history repeats itself.” The film, called “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed,” opens with archival footage from early-twentieth-century cataclysms—the First and Second World Wars, the Soviet labor camps and famine—and proceeds to Hollywood, where Reagan rose to prominence. Throughout the film, a female narrator invokes “the Beast,” an authoritarian force that threatens “anything that elevated or empowered the individual.”
The triumphal final scene shows the destruction of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, but it is followed by an ominous coda that warns of the dangers of Islamic radicalism, with militants hoisting rifles, and people falling to their deaths from the Twin Towers. “War had not been wished away,” the narrator says. “Reaching out: first to convert, then turning in to destroy. That was the nature of the beast.”
Julia Jones, who worked as Bannon’s screenwriting partner for a decade, helped write the script, but she told me that she was not involved in the coda. She described how Bannon admired the documentary films made by the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, such as “Triumph of the Will”: “Her playbook was key for him. I think he used her technique of fear, which you can see in that movie.”
Ultimately, Bannon was able to secure only about a third of the film’s financing, and Watkins covered the rest. He told me he would never use his own money again: “Because Steve was a Hollywood guy, I hoped there was going to be a great distribution program behind it, and there really wasn’t.”
The first major profile of Steve Bannon appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, in October, 2015, after he had become the chairman of the conservative Web site Breitbart News and moved to Washington. He was working out of a Capitol Hill town house, which he called the Breitbart Embassy, and the image he had cultivated years earlier in Hollywood was gone. In a photograph for the story, he sits slumped on a couch in the house. Wearing an open-necked striped shirt that bulges around his ample middle, and cargo shorts that ride up his thighs, he looks at the camera with a baleful gaze.
The article, by Joshua Green, was titled “This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America,” and it set the tone for subsequent coverage. In it, Bannon said of Breitbart, which was publishing a slew of attacks on the mainstream media and on establishment politicians, “We’re linking to everybody else’s stuff, we’re aggregating, we’ll pull stuff from the Left. It’s a rolling phenomenon. Huge traffic. Everybody’s invested.” Green described Bannon’s two decades in California as “a succession of Gatsbyish reinventions that made him rich,” including a period of “Hollywood moguldom.” When Donald Trump hired Bannon to be the C.E.O. of his campaign, in August, 2016, it seemed a fulfillment of Bannon’s challenge to the liberal élite, in the movie business and in Washington.
People in Hollywood were bewildered by Bannon’s story of himself as a major dealmaker. “I never heard of him, prior to Trumpism,” the media mogul Barry Diller told me. “And no one I know knew him in his so-called Hollywood period.” Another longtime entertainment executive said, “The barriers in Hollywood are simple. First, you have to have talent. And, second, you have to know how to get along with people. It’s a small club.”
Many who did have dealings with Bannon were unwilling to be interviewed. Others would not speak for attribution, saying that they feared what he might do with the instruments of government—one spoke of a possible I.R.S. audit. He worked hard to join the Hollywood establishment, and several people who knew him said that they were startled by his conversion to what one called “conservative political jihad.” Another said, “All the years I knew him, he just wanted to make a buck.”
Bannon was reared in an Irish Catholic family in Richmond, Virginia. Bannon’s father, Martin, spent his career at A.T. & T., and his mother, Doris, was a homemaker. After attending Benedictine College Preparatory, a private military high school, he went to Virginia Tech, graduating in 1976, and spent seven years in the Navy—four at sea and three as a low-level official at the Pentagon, dealing with budget and planning. He has told reporters that his parents were Kennedy Democrats, and that he wasn’t political until he entered the Navy, and witnessed President Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis. He became a Reagan Republican.
While Bannon was at the Pentagon, he attended Georgetown University at night, and received a master’s degree in government. By then, the Wall Street boom was under way, and Bannon wanted to be part of it. He entered Harvard Business School in 1983. He was twenty-nine, older than many of his classmates, and without the family and professional connections that some of them enjoyed. Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek that he attended a Goldman Sachs recruiting event, where he stood on the edge of the crowd and struck up a conversation about baseball. He later found out that he had been talking to John Weinberg, Jr., whose father ran Goldman Sachs, and he was offered a summer job.
Bannon became an associate at Goldman in 1985, and two years later the firm sent him to the Los Angeles office. Japanese companies were becoming increasingly interested in Hollywood, and Bannon focussed his efforts on Japan. Thom Mount, a movie executive who had a long career at Universal Pictures, had just started a production company. Bannon and an associate offered to raise financing for him, and during the next six months they made at least a dozen trips to Tokyo, meeting with executives at NHK, Japan’s most powerful media company. After Bannon helped raise the money for Mount’s production of “The Indian Runner,” written and directed by Sean Penn, he demanded a producer credit. When some of the NHK financing did not materialize, Bannon offered to raise funds from other sources, in return for a small stake in the Mount Company. He negotiated a deal for millions of dollars of risk equity, spread over several pictures, from the Japanese conglomerate Nissho Iwai, but that, too, fell apart.
In 1990, a senior Goldman colleague, John Talbott, made a deal with a Japanese conglomerate to create a private-equity fund, with two hundred and fifty million dollars in capital. Talbott decided to leave Goldman and set up his own firm. Bannon had convinced Talbott that he had some local small-company clients, and Talbott asked Bannon to join him. That year, Talbott Bannon & Co. launched, and opened an office in Beverly Hills. But the deal with the Japanese conglomerate came undone, and within a year Talbott left. At Talbott’s request, Bannon removed Talbott’s name from the firm.
Running Bannon & Co. was Bannon’s full-time job, but he was increasingly engaged by moviemaking. He became a voluble, intimidating presence at Thom Mount’s Burbank office. One former colleague saw him yelling at Mount about some financial matter, as though Mount were his subordinate. Sometimes he assumed the affect of a drill sergeant, barking orders at employees. He was passionate about military history. “He’d go into long diatribes about the Visigoth invasion and the Peloponnesian Wars,” another colleague said. “He talked in military terms all the time: ‘We’ll set up a Trojan horse!’ ”
Others found Bannon entertaining and compelling. Someone who worked with him pointed out that he had loyal colleagues who tended to follow him from one endeavor to the next. Mindy Affrime, who was the head of development for Mount, recalled how her friendship with Bannon started. They were at a meeting with other people when he said something insulting to her, and she insulted him back. That seemed to take him by surprise, and he laughed. Affrime told me that they remained friendly for many years, mostly because they shared a commitment to moviemaking. “The art of it was what interested him,” Affrime said. “He really wanted to learn how to make movies.”
Another colleague recalled that Bannon seemed out of place in Hollywood: “The business runs on talent relationships. He had this real will-to-power vibe that was so off-putting. He came on so strong, and in a way that I couldn’t imagine he would be successful with creative people.”
Bannon left Mount in 1991, but still wanted to make movies. He had long been drawn to Shakespeare’s play “Titus Andronicus,” in which Titus, a Roman general, sacrifices the eldest son of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, and her younger sons rape and cut off the hands and tongue of Titus’ daughter. In 1991, Bannon hired Jones as a screenwriting partner, and their first project was an adaptation of “Titus,” which featured galactic travel and an episode of “ectoplasmic sex” between a “lower human” (a Moor in the original play) and a space queen. Bannon could not sell it. But in 1994 he reportedly optioned Julie Taymor’s Off Broadway adaptation of “Titus.” (Taymor denies this account.) Three years later, Taymor, who by then had directed Disney’s “The Lion King” on Broadway, wrote and directed the “Titus” film, and Bannon was an executive producer.
Bannon hoped to have an active role in the creative process. A former colleague who knew Taymor said, “Steve tried to be involved—I think he really cared about it. But Julie wouldn’t let him near it.” Taymor says that she did not even know he had any connection to the film until she saw his name on the poster. The film, which came out in 1999, did poorly at the box office. Bannon told Jones that if Taymor had used his ideas it would have succeeded.
Last November, when Bannon was named Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist, many articles highlighted an extraordinary fact about his Hollywood career: that he had negotiated a profit participation in “Seinfeld” in 1993, two years before the show went into syndication. Forbes reported that, if Bannon had a one-per-cent share in the profits, “he would have made about $32.6 million since 1998,” and went on to say that “Bannon’s steady ‘Seinfeld’ income” was supporting his career as a conservative propagandist.
The “Seinfeld” story first became widely known after the Bloomberg Businessweek profile. Bannon said that, in 1992, Westinghouse Electric hired Bannon & Co. to sell its small stake in Castle Rock Entertainment, a TV production company. It soon emerged that Ted Turner was interested in buying all of Castle Rock, including its minority shareholders. Bannon advised Westinghouse to accept Turner’s offer, which included an interest in a package of several Castle Rock shows.
Bannon claimed that the Westinghouse executives told him, “If this is such a great deal, why don’t you defer some of your cash fee and keep an ownership stake” in that package? He agreed. One of the shows was “Seinfeld.” “We calculated what it would get us if it made it to syndication,” Bannon said. “We were wrong by a factor of five.” Bloomberg Businessweek said that Bannon continues to benefit from “a stream of ‘Seinfeld’ royalties.”
Some of those who were responsible for “Seinfeld” became agitated by Bannon’s story. Larry David, the show’s head writer and executive producer, told me, “I don’t think I ever heard of him until he surfaced with the Trump campaign and I had no idea that he was profiting from the work of industrious Jews!” Rob Reiner, one of the founders of Castle Rock, has said of Bannon’s profits from the show, “It makes me sick.”
There were several companies involved in the deal: Turner Broadcasting Systems; Castle Rock; Sony, which owned a stake of about forty-four per cent in Castle Rock; and Westinghouse, with a fifteen-per-cent stake. In the end, Westinghouse received its cash compensation, plus a small percentage of the TV package, and Bannon & Co. got a smaller one. In 1995, Westinghouse acquired CBS, and CBS became the surviving company.
That fall, “Seinfeld” went into syndication. After Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner, in late 1995, Turner’s Castle Rock came under the Warner Bros. umbrella. Warner Bros. started sending out all “Seinfeld” profit-participation statements, including Westinghouse’s, which goes to CBS. The Castle Rock and the Westinghouse records from the early months of syndication are not readily available. It is possible that Bannon’s deal was capped and paid out at that time. But, since then, neither CBS nor Castle Rock nor Warner Bros. has records of payments to Bannon, if those records are as they were described to me.
In early 1993, Bannon was hired by Ed Bass, an heir to one of the biggest oil fortunes in Texas. While Bass’s older brother managed the family’s wealth, Ed moved to Santa Fe, where he spent time at Synergia Ranch, an intentional community devoted to ecological sustainability.
One of Synergia’s founders was John Allen, an ecologist and playwright. Allen and Bass became friends, and Bass eventually became the chief financial backer of Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system that Allen planned to build outside Oracle, Arizona, about thirty miles north of Tucson. Bass committed to spending a hundred and fifty million dollars to create the three-acre compound, which included a rain forest, a desert, an ocean, and a farm, with thousands of species of plants, insects, and animals. It also included people: a team of eight “biospherians” was sealed inside for two years, from 1991 to 1993, and a second team began a shorter stay the following March.
By 1993, Bass had spent an additional fifty million dollars on the project, and he wanted to get its finances under control. He assigned that task to Bannon, and to Bass’s Texas banker, Martin Bowen. Bannon went to New York investment banks, looking for venture capital. When he couldn’t raise the money, he came up with a marketing plan, to sell biospheres to governments around the world, and to build Biosphere 3, a Las Vegas casino and resort, but those efforts, too, were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Bannon said that Biosphere 2’s managers were resisting financial discipline. “The people at the biosphere just treated huge amounts of money like it was petty cash,” Rebecca Reider quotes Bannon as saying in her 2009 book, “Dreaming the Biosphere.” Ultimately, Bass agreed, and he and Bannon concluded that the only solution was to seize Biosphere 2 from Allen’s management, and to install Bannon as the acting C.E.O.
Bannon planned the takeover as meticulously as a paramilitary operation. On April 1, 1994, he and Bowen rode toward Biosphere 2, accompanied by armed U.S. marshals and a phalanx of support people. The marshals went first, followed by investment bankers, accountants, public-relations people, and secretaries. Bannon had placed his younger brother Chris, a former Navy pilot, at the head of the first team. Chris Bannon told Reider, “We had to secure the gate out front, get out with the federal marshals, serve the security person at the gate, secure the gate, and then move into the other critical areas that had already been defined in order to insure the safety and security of the Biosphere and its systems.” Several weeks earlier, the second team of biospherians had entered the sealed area.
As the Bannon brothers knew, John Allen and several other members of the Biosphere 2 management were travelling in Japan, but two of them, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, returned as soon as they learned of the seizure. Alling, known as Gaie, was thirty-four, with a master’s degree in ecology from Yale, and one of the Biosphere’s most passionate defenders. Van Thillo, thirty-three, was a Belgian-born engineer. It was night when they arrived at the compound, and Alling instructed Van Thillo to break the system’s safety valves and open the doors. In a melodramatic flourish, Alling, in the local press, compared the situation to that of the Challenger, which exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts.
On April 6th, police officers arrested Alling and Van Thillo at a Tucson hotel. The detective who was assigned to investigate the break-in had decided that if any charges were brought they would be misdemeanors, and the deputy county attorney agreed. But the new Biosphere management contacted the county attorney and demanded felony prosecution, saying that Alling and Van Thillo had done tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage by breaking the safety valves. Alling and Van Thillo were charged with three felonies, including criminal property damage. A grand-jury hearing was set for April 21st.
Bannon tried to assert control over Biosphere 2, but some of the staff remained loyal to John Allen and the original mission, and were deeply suspicious of their new boss. On April 17th, four days before Bannon was to testify before the grand jury, William Dempster, Biosphere’s director of engineering, went to talk to Bannon with a tape recorder hidden in his underwear. Bannon, speaking to Dempster about Allen, said, “Johnny thought they got a rough lesson on April 1st, and they did. And you tell Johnny who delivered that lesson—I delivered it, O.K.?” Referring to Alling, and to his upcoming testimony, he said, “On fucking April 1st, I kicked his ass, and I’m going to kick her ass on Thursday.”
Bannon was preoccupied by Alling’s remark about the Challenger, and her general intransigence, saying over and over, “I am going to ram it down her fucking throat.” He went on, “She thinks she is a goddess, she thinks she is above us all. She thinks she has transformed to something that we are not worthy of. Well, you know what? I don’t buy that. I think she is a self-centered, deluded young woman, and she is about to get a reality check, and I am going to deliver it to her.” He added, “I am not about to have a twenty-nine-year-old bimbo criticize the people at this place for running something.” He also said, “But she’s going to pay. She’s going to pay. When this is over, she’s finished.”
Later, at a pretrial interview, Bannon said he understood that he was to conduct himself as if he were under oath. He was asked if he had made some of those remarks. Bannon, unaware that he had been recorded, claimed that he had not. “I’ve never referred to Ms. Alling as a bimbo,” he said.
As the criminal case proceeded, Alling and Van Thillo filed a civil suit against Space Biospheres Ventures, Ed Bass’s company, for breach of contract, and S.B.V. countersued. The civil lawsuits were consolidated, and went to trial in May, 1996. The jury ruled mainly in Alling and Van Thillo’s favor, awarding them more than six hundred thousand dollars in damages; S.B.V. appealed, and the parties settled.
William Walker, Alling and Van Thillo’s trial lawyer, told me that he spoke with the jury foreperson after the verdict. Walker said, “What sunk Bannon was, he lied. I was able to introduce that he had said those things about Abigail, and then he denied it.” The criminal case was dropped. (Bannon declined to comment.) Alling is the founder and now the president of the Biosphere Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to stewardship of the earth’s resources.
Bannon’s team helped maintain Biosphere 2 as a center for scientific research. In November, 1995, Columbia University agreed to manage Biosphere 2, which the school thought could be a site for ambitious climate-change experiments. Bannon, who remained the acting C.E.O. for a little more than two years, said, in an interview with C-SPAN, in January, 1995, that Biosphere 2, which produced high levels of carbon dioxide, was an ideal place to study the effects of greenhouse gases. Speaking about scientists who study climate change, Bannon added, “Many of them feel that the earth’s atmosphere in a hundred years is what Biosphere 2’s atmosphere is today.” Bannon went on to run Breitbart, which routinely describes climate science as fraudulent; his brother Chris remains on the staff of Biosphere 2.
While Bannon was embroiled in the Biosphere 2 litigation, a complaint was filed against him by the Santa Monica district attorney’s office. Bannon, who had a daughter with his first wife, began seeing another woman in 1989. According to police records and her divorce filing, they had violent fights during their early time together and went to counselling. Five years later, the woman, then forty-one, became pregnant with twins. Bannon said that he would marry her, but only if the fetuses were healthy. After an amniocentesis confirmed that they were, he sent the woman a prenuptial agreement, which they negotiated for three and a half months. They were married in April, 1995, three days before she gave birth to two girls.
On the morning of January 1, 1996, a Santa Monica police officer arrived at the couple’s home, after being alerted to a 911 call. The caller had hung up, and when the operator called back the phone was off the hook. In the officer’s crime report, he wrote that a woman answered the door. She appeared to be very upset, and began to cry. It was several minutes before she was calm enough to tell him what had happened.
According to the officer’s report, the woman said that Bannon had slept on the living-room couch the preceding night. She got up early in the morning to feed the twins, and Bannon was upset because she was making too much noise. Later, as he got ready to leave, she asked him for the American Express card so she could go grocery shopping. He told her to write a check. She followed Bannon as he went to his car. The police report said, “She asked him why he was playing these games with the money, and he said it was his money.”
After she threatened to divorce him, “[she] said he laughed at her, and said he would never move out. [She] said she spit at him, and [he] reached up to her, from the driver’s seat of his car, and grabbed her left wrist. He pulled her down, as if he was trying to pull [her] into the car, over the door. [She] said Mr. Bannon grabbed at her neck, also pulling her into the car. She said that she started to fight back, striking at his face so he would let go of her. After a short period of time, she was able to get away from him.”
She ran into the house, followed by Bannon, telling him that she was calling 911. “Mr. Bannon jumped over her and the twins to grab the phone from her,” the report went on, and he threw the phone across the room. The woman later said, in a sworn divorce filing, that he screamed, “Crazy fucking cunt!” She complained to the officer about her sore neck, and he wrote, “I saw red marks on her left wrist and the right side of her neck.”
Bannon was charged with spousal abuse, simple battery, and dissuading a witness, because he had made it impossible for his wife to talk to the police. The case was called for trial on August 12, 1996. Bannon’s wife later said that his lawyer told her that, if Bannon went to jail, “I would have no money and no way to support the children.” Bannon, she said, told her that, if she went to court, “he and his attorney would make sure that I would be the one who was guilty.” Bannon and his attorney arranged for his wife and their daughters to leave town, she said. (Bannon’s lawyer denies intimidating Bannon’s wife or arranging for her to leave town, and Bannon declined to comment.) On August 12th, the judge in the case, ruling that the “victim/witness” was “unable to be located,” ordered the case dismissed. In January, 1997, Bannon’s wife filed for divorce.
The divorce file covers more than a dozen years. During that time, the two fought over Bannon’s repeated failures to make court-ordered support payments, and other issues involving the twins. In April, 1997, he submitted an “income and expense declaration,” indicating that his annual salary was roughly five hundred thousand dollars, and that his total assets were around $1.1 million. Any profit participations from “Seinfeld” should have shown up at that time. Either they were not substantial or Bannon failed to disclose them in a sworn statement.
Bannon rarely saw the twins, but, according to the marital-settlement agreement, he was responsible for their private-school tuition—as long as he approved of the school. When the girls were ready to start kindergarten, Bannon and his ex-wife visited a number of schools. During an interview at one of them, she wrote in a court filing, Bannon “asked the director why there were so many Chanukah books in the library.” After visiting another, “he asked me if it bothered me that the school used to be in a Temple.” Then, she went on, he “began a campaign of threatening every school to which I applied. He claimed that he would sue the school if they accepted our children. Needless to say, this had a devastating effect on the girls’ ability to get into a school.” The court file contains letters from administrators at two schools, who wrote that Bannon threatened them. At Odyssey, in Malibu, Dr. Steven Mecham wrote that Bannon, after he visited, said there would be “no tuition from him. He further said that if we did enroll his children, he would sue me personally and the school.” The girls went to public elementary school.
For middle school and high school, the girls wanted to attend the Archer School, a girls’ school in Brentwood. Their mother, without informing Bannon, had them apply, and they were admitted for the sixth grade, in the fall of 2007. She then told Bannon that the girls had been admitted and urged him to visit the school. As they argued about Archer, Bannon’s ex-wife wrote, he told her that “the biggest problem he had with Archer is the number of Jews that attend. He said he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be whiney brats.”
This account of Bannon’s comments about Jews and Archer has been widely reported, and Bannon’s supporters have dismissed them as the fabrications of an angry ex-wife. But the divorce file, which includes e-mails between Bannon and his ex-wife, contains further evidence that he did complain about the number of Jewish students. On March 19, 2007, she told him that Archer had accepted the girls. Twelve days later, she wrote to Bannon, “As for the % of Jewish girls at Archer I have no idea what it is nor do I understand why that is such a concern for you. I certainly have not been raising the girls to be prejudice[d] against Jews or anyone else for that matter.”
A spokesperson for Bannon said that he is not an anti-Semite, and pointed out that the girls went to Archer, and Bannon paid their tuition. But that was only after his ex-wife went to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, later that year, laid out Bannon’s history of having sabotaged her efforts to find a school, and said that she hadn’t notified him about the girls’ applications to Archer because she feared that he would do so again. In Bannon’s court filing, he said that he did not want his children “attending a secular school,” and that, “based on my income, the expense of the proposed school is excessive.”
On the income statement that Bannon submitted to the court, he wrote that his employer was Bannon Strategic Advisors, a consulting firm that he set up in 2005. He left blank the space for his salary, and reported $967,465 in stocks, bonds, and other assets, and $41,401,067 in other property. The figure is inexplicable, and inconsistent with his other publicly available filings. In late August of 2007, Bannon agreed that the girls could go to Archer, and that he would pay their tuition.
Last month, the Washington Post reported that, during the nineties in Hollywood, Bannon became “very wealthy” from various deals and from the sale of Bannon & Co. The Post said that the sale of PolyGram by its parent company, Royal Philips Electronics, in 1998, was “one of Bannon’s biggest deals.” Bannon told the Post that he brought in Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, of Saudi Arabia, as a possible bidder for PolyGram, and that although Seagram ultimately bought the company, the prospect of another bidder drove up the price by twenty per cent. Bannon said that he received “a big fee,” presumably from PolyGram. (The Prince declined to comment.)
But a senior PolyGram executive at the time said that Prince Alwaleed was not a bidder, and that he had never met Bannon. When I asked Michael Kuhn, who was the president of PolyGram’s filmed-entertainment division, whether PolyGram could have paid Bannon a “big fee,” he said, “There’s no way. We were just being sold, by Philips—logically, we wouldn’t have paid. We were the target.”
Pehr Gyllenhammar, who was on the board of Philips and was involved in the transaction, told me that he doesn’t remember Prince Alwaleed or Bannon playing any part in the sale. Kuhn did say that, a year or two earlier, Bannon & Co. had helped PolyGram when it was considering buying M-G-M, but that acquisition never happened. “So I don’t know where all this comes from,” he concluded.
Several months after the PolyGram deal, in September, 1998, SG Cowen, the Société Générale subsidiary, acquired Bannon & Co. According to an official at SG Cowen, no meaningful consideration was exchanged for Bannon & Co., but Bannon and his partner, Scot Vorse, were given employment contracts.
Kim Fennebresque, the head of investment banking at SG Cowen, who became the C.E.O. a year after the acquisition, recalled about Bannon, “What I saw was a smart guy, who was funny and likable and enjoyable, who had a quick laugh, who was ineffectual.” Fennebresque described the years that Bannon and Vorse worked for SG Cowen, from 1998 to 2000, as “a high-octane time,” adding, “Anybody could make chicken salad out of chicken shit in that period.” Bannon “was one of those guys who always had big stuff about to happen,” he said. “But, after a quarter or two or seven, you become highly skeptical. Ultimately, we parted ways.”
Bannon kept searching for a breakthrough deal that would elevate him into the Hollywood establishment. In the spring of 2002, he joined the Firm, a new talent-management company headed by Jeff Kwatinetz. A Harvard Law School graduate, Kwatinetz had some success in the music business, and sometimes said that he wanted to make the Firm the next AOL Time Warner.
When Bannon arrived, Kwatinetz was negotiating to acquire Artists Management Group, the talent company created by Michael Ovitz. In the eighties and early nineties, Ovitz was often described as the most powerful man in Hollywood, but A.M.G. had been weakened by enormous overhead, and a run of bad publicity was causing clients to leave.
“They had essentially negotiated the number,” a Firm executive familiar with the A.M.G. acquisition told me. “One day, Bannon goes to see Michael, cuts the number dramatically, and says, ‘This is it.’ ” In the end, this executive continued, the deal got done for a number closer to the original one. In late 2003, Bannon left the Firm.
Around this time, Bannon was working on the Reagan documentary. One of the more curious sequences in “In the Face of Evil” may shed some light on Bannon’s transformation from a Hollywood operative to a conservative activist.
The film’s narrator praises the early studio bosses, “Jewish entrepreneurs,” who “differed in taste and style, yet shared two common elements: ruthlessness and uncompromising patriotism.” These men were not particularly kind to Reagan: “In the unforgiving calculus of the studio system, he was weighed, measured, and found wanting.” But a middling film career led to something greater. Reagan became the most powerful figure in the world by exploiting what he had learned from working in the movies.
When “In the Face of Evil” was released, in October, 2004, mainstream critics were mostly dismissive. Lou Lumenick, of the New York Post, noted that it was “very much like Soviet propaganda.” But a small, fervent group of conservatives in Hollywood embraced it. That December, it was shown at the Liberty Film Festival, a new conservative event. At the festival, Bannon met Andrew Breitbart, at that time a thirty-five-year-old blogger for the Drudge Report, who was planning to start his own Web site.
At another screening, Bannon met David Bossie, a longtime opponent of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bossie had first become known to the public as a Whitewater investigator for the House Committee on Government Reform; he resigned from his position after he produced misleading evidence about the Clintons’ real-estate investments in Arkansas. By 2004, Bossie was the president and chairman of Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit. After seeing Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which came out during the Presidential campaign and fuelled attacks on George W. Bush, Bossie decided to get into filmmaking himself. Citizens United quickly produced the documentary “Celsius 41.11,” which mounted a right-wing defense of the President and was released just weeks before the election.
When Bossie and Bannon met, Bossie was working with Kevin Knoblock, the director of “Celsius 41.11,” on “Border War,” a documentary about the perceived threat of illegal immigration, and Bannon signed on as a distributor. Bannon and Bossie also started planning a series of movies that Bannon would work on for Citizens United.
Julia Jones, the screenwriter, suggested to a friend, James Ulmer, an entertainment journalist, that he do a story about the new cadre. “I’d never heard of Steve Bannon, and when I called my friends in L.A. none of them knew who he was,” Ulmer told me recently. But Bannon cultivated Ulmer, who was struck by his persistence. “If anyone knows how to grab an opportunity, it’s Bannon,” he said. Ulmer published an article in the Times, in June, 2005, that described Bannon as a “Roman Catholic filmmaker, conservative-film financier, Washington networker and Hollywood deal-chaser,” who was “emblematic of a new wave in Hollywood, a group that intends to clean those media pipes with pictures that promote godliness, Pax Americana, and its own view of family values.”
The two men had a number of conversations in the spring of 2005, Ulmer said, and Bannon told him several times that he hoped to destroy the Hollywood establishment. In the Times article, Ulmer said that Bannon had told him, “We’re the peasants with the pitchforks storming the lord’s manor.” Ulmer recalled, “He was always making these grand, hyperbolic analogies between good and evil, the culture of life versus the scourge of death that, in his view, Hollywood had become. Hollywood was the great Satan.”
Ulmer met with Bannon at his Santa Monica office, where Bannon had written the names of some recent movie releases on a whiteboard. Ulmer reported that Bannon had said, “On Ash Wednesday, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is released theatrically, and on Sunday, ‘Lord of the Rings’—a great Christian allegory—wins 11 Academy Awards. So here you have Sodom and Gomorrah bowing to the great Christian God.” Ulmer recalled, “I was watching him draw all these configurations and connecting lines about the Beast and Satan, and half of my brain was saying, ‘This guy’s a comic stitch,’ and the other, ‘He’s really off the deep end.’ ”
Bannon seemed to have absorbed Bossie’s anger toward the Clintons. Ulmer was taken aback, he said, when Bannon began talking about Hillary Clinton’s likely campaign for the Presidency in the next election. According to Ulmer’s memory of the conversation, Bannon told him, in graphic terms, that he and others were preparing to destroy Hillary in 2008. (A source close to Bannon says that this conversation never took place, and that Bannon never met Ulmer in person.)
Bannon tried to keep his personal politics separate from his efforts to make money. By 2004, he was the chairman of a film distributor, American Vantage Media. He used American Vantage to acquire another distributor, Wellspring Media, which was well respected and reliably liberal, and became its chairman. According to Ulmer’s recollection, Bannon told him that his Wellspring colleagues were his friends, even though they thought he was a reactionary and he thought they were “communists.”
At Wellspring, former employees said that Bannon was an erratic manager. He was overbearing in his demands, and then would disappear for weeks at a time. But they also found that he tended to judge people on talent, without regard to politics. He was supportive of the films they wanted to work on, including “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” a documentary about Kerry’s journey from Vietnam soldier to peace activist, which countered conservative attacks on his military record.
The following year, Bannon orchestrated a deal that had considerable promise. Trevor Drinkwater, who was the C.E.O. of a film-distribution company, Genius Products, recalled that he and Bannon decided to merge Genius and American Vantage; Bannon became chairman of Genius Products. Harvey and Bob Weinstein were starting their new production company. “Goldman Sachs was raising the money for the Weinstein Company, and Steve called one of his buddies at Goldman,” Drinkwater said. Bannon and Drinkwater offered the Weinsteins a low-priced distribution deal. Drinkwater said that he and Bannon hoped that Genius might eventually be folded into the Weinstein Company. It did not work out that way. Genius lost money year after year, and was forced into bankruptcy in 2011. The bankruptcy trustee later sued T.W.C., which countersued; the two companies are still involved in litigation.
Bannon’s other large deal in 2005 involved a company called Internet Gaming Entertainment, founded by the former child actor Brock Pierce, which sold virtual currency to players of the video game World of Warcraft. Pierce and Bannon pitched the company to Goldman Sachs, and in February, 2006, Goldman, along with a consortium of private funds, reportedly agreed to invest about sixty million dollars in I.G.E. It was a validation for Bannon, who regularly courted Goldman and boasted about having worked there. But, according to Wired, I.G.E.’s profits started to decline in 2006, and the next year the company sold some of its operation at a deep discount.
David Bossie produced two documentaries for the 2008 campaign season: “Hillary: The Movie” and “Hype: The Obama Effect.” The most damning review of the Hillary film came from the Federal Election Commission, which concluded that it was a piece of political propaganda, and that Citizens United’s marketing efforts should be subject to campaign-finance regulations. Citizens United filed suit against the F.E.C., and the Supreme Court ultimately heard the case. In January, 2010, the Court issued its landmark ruling against the F.E.C.: nonprofits could spend as they saw fit on campaigns, with no government restrictions.
The Clinton and Obama documentaries had none of the bombast of Bannon’s Reagan movie, but they were unapologetically crude and, in the case of “Hype,” arguably racist. “Hype” opened with footage of Obama dancing to Beyoncé on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and showed him eating waffles. It twice mentioned Obama’s relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, suggesting not only that he agreed with Wright’s inflammatory remarks but also that he wasn’t really a Christian.
Bannon went back to James Ulmer, telling him that he should write a profile of Bossie. “David is very controversial and proud of it,” Bannon wrote in an e-mail to Ulmer in September, 2008. “He has established a conservative film making studio at his headquarters in dc and is preparing to roll out an entire slate starting with the obama film.” A week later, he wrote again: “Do you think there is going to be any interest in the story as other people are starting to chase him but he obviously wants to see if you have an interest.” And the following week, after Ulmer said that he had proposed the story to editors at the Times, Bannon wrote, “Dude . . . any progress on the article????” When Ulmer finally said that the editors weren’t interested, Bannon replied, at 3 A.M., “Come on baby . . . this is a big story.”
Bannon sensed that the political mood of the country was changing. As the financial crisis deepened, Obama made his insurgent run for President. Once he took office, the Tea Party flourished in opposition to him and to the bank bailouts, and, in 2010, it helped Republicans recapture the House. The Tea Party’s success also sparked Bannon’s productivity. That year, he released three documentaries: “Generation Zero,” which laid the blame for the financial crisis on the profligacy of liberal baby boomers; “Fire from the Heartland,” which showcased the women of the Tea Party, above all Michele Bachmann; and “Battle for America,” which rallied conservative voters. Citizens United Productions, a company created by Citizens United, produced all three Bannon documentaries in 2010, along with four by Kevin Knoblock. According to financial filings obtained by the Washington Post, Citizens United spent $1.9 million on film production that year; Citizens United Productions spent $1.7 million on production and distribution.
Bannon became a fixture at Tea Party rallies and conventions across the country, where he gave rousing speeches. At a Tax Day Tea Party in April, 2010, held on the streets of midtown Manhattan, Bannon told a raucous crowd that America is “addicted to a drug,” debt, that is “provided by the pushers on Wall Street and the mules on Capitol Hill. America needs an intervention, and the Tea Party is going to give it to them.”
Bannon also started appearing regularly on Fox News, where Sean Hannity produced a special about “Generation Zero.” During this time, Bannon went through “a visible transformation,” a friend said. “In his days in business, he dressed like an investment banker from Connecticut—shirt and jacket, tie or not, boring men’s shoes, a short, conventional men’s haircut. But he couldn’t show up at the Tea Party dressed like that. He started dressing more casually. There was this other side of him—he was from the South, he could be in a sports bar in West Virginia, and he would be accepted.”
The friend continued, “He never fit in in the world of investment banking—he was this gauche Irish kid. Never fit in in the Hollywood world—his politics were much too conservative. Never fit in in the mainstream Republican world—he wasn’t uptight like them. But then he got embraced by the Tea Party world. He really started playing that role, and he came into his own. He loved being on TV.”
In 2011, Bannon released a documentary about Sarah Palin, “The Undefeated.” Although Obama had beaten John McCain and Palin in 2008, Bannon saw her as an avatar of populist conservatism. Friends fought with him about Palin. One recalled, “His excitement about her was completely cynical. He thought she was a lightweight, but he was convinced she was going to be a star.”
Bannon hoped that “The Undefeated” could be a mainstream success, and kick off a Palin campaign for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination. Palin, however, does not appear to have been involved in its production. Bannon purchased the audiobook rights to her memoir, “Going Rogue,” and used it as voice-over, but the documentary does not feature an interview with its subject. Bannon managed to track down the Palin family’s lawyer, in Alaska, but apparently did not speak to any members of Palin’s staff or her family.
The real star of the movie was Andrew Breitbart, whose Web site had just helped to discredit and destroy the liberal activist network ACORN. Breitbart appeared throughout “The Undefeated,” pale, heavyset, curly-haired, speaking angrily about the character of the Republican establishment. Over footage of a young man wearing a fitted suit in a corporate office, Breitbart says, “When you go to Washington, D.C., and you meet with the conservative movement, it’s as if they’ve read the exact right books, taken the right tests, met the right people, are wearing the right outfits, wearing the right tie—and you almost feel like an outsider, even though you’re in the actual conservative movement.”
Breitbart denounced mainstream Republicans’ dismissive treatment of Palin. “She’s also an existential threat to these eunuchs who have run as men, but aren’t men,” he said. “They look at Sarah Palin and they say, ‘You know what? We’re going to destroy her.’ That’s how I feel when I go into Washington: I see eunuchs.”
When Bannon was focussed on Hollywood, he had emphasized his Goldman Sachs connection. Now he stressed his upbringing, which he described as blue-collar. In October, 2010, he appeared on “Political Vindication,” a right-wing radio show in Los Angeles. One of the hosts said that Bannon had been “evil” while he worked at Goldman Sachs. He replied equably, saying, “It was a private partnership then, and a firm of the highest ethical standards,” but it had changed when it went public. He did not mention that since it went public, in 1999, he had made every effort to do business with Goldman. Now, he said, “I’m fifty-six years old, and I’m a filmmaker full time.” He described David Bossie as his partner. “What I’ve tried to do is weaponize film. I want these films to be incredibly provocative. I want to present our point of view. I’m not interested in saying ‘on the one hand and the other.’ I’m conservative. I believe in the Tea Party movement. I believe in the populist rebellion.” He added, “I make films of the highest artistic quality.”
Bannon’s warnings about Islam had become even more dire since the making of “In the Face of Evil.” On the radio show, he said, “The left is starting to drumbeat an idea that we should have the rapprochement with radical Islam. Well, that’s unacceptable. Sharia law and the freedoms of the U.S. are mutually exclusive terms.” Americans were “in a hundred-year war,” he said repeatedly. As the interview ended, Bannon told his hosts, “You guys are the backbone of this revolution. So please don’t give up the fight!”
Bannon was confident that the populist revolution would eventually vanquish the Republican establishment, “school district by school district, city council by city council,” but, with an assist from his friend Andrew Breitbart, it came far sooner than he had expected. By March, 2011, Breitbart had been speaking at Tea Party events for more than a year and he was out promoting a memoir. At these events, he had perfected a funny, occasionally vulgar way of speaking to conservative crowds, describing himself as a Los Angeles rollerblader who was out to take back the culture from liberals. At a conservative donors’ conference in Palm Beach, Florida, Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund billionaire, and his daughter Rebekah saw Breitbart speak. Charmed by his speech, they started talking to him about the future of Breitbart News. Soon, Breitbart introduced the Mercers to Bannon.
Bannon had long encouraged Breitbart to expand his Web site, which at the time was largely aggregating news from the wire services. That spring, Bannon drafted a business plan that called for the Mercers to invest ten million dollars in Breitbart News. In return, they would receive a large stake in the company. Bannon joined its board.
In March, 2012, Breitbart, then forty-three, suffered a fatal heart attack. A former employee told me about the aftermath at Breitbart News. Larry Solov, Breitbart’s co-founder, had helped start the company “not because Larry is politically driven,” the former employee said, but because Solov and Breitbart “were best friends since they were kids.” He went on, “Andrew was the alpha, Larry was the beta. So, when Andrew died, Larry didn’t know what to do. Bannon came in and said, ‘I’ll save the day!’ ” Solov agreed to name Bannon the chairman of Breitbart News.
Meanwhile, the Mercers funded a slate of conservative projects that paid Bannon as a consultant. In 2012, Bannon and Peter Schweizer, the author of the Reagan biography, set up the Government Accountability Institute, a conservative nonprofit, to which the Mercers donated two million dollars during the next two years. In the same period, they gave more than $3.5 million to David Bossie’s Citizens United, and in 2013, as Jane Mayer has reported in these pages, they became the principal investors in Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics firm, for which Bannon served as vice-president and secretary of the board. That year, Bannon reported receiving a seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar salary from Breitbart News, and a hundred-thousand-dollar salary from the Government Accountability Institute, according to records reviewed by the Washington Post.
The Mercers helped place Bannon at the center of a conservative network that intended to overthrow the political establishment. He continued making documentaries—including “Occupy Unmasked,” which described the Occupy movement as the product of a broad liberal conspiracy—and used Breitbart to promote them. At the Government Accountability Institute, Schweizer wrote “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.” The book, which was published by HarperCollins in May, 2015, played a role in raising doubts about the Clinton Foundation. Bannon made an hour-long “Clinton Cash” documentary, which was produced by Glittering Steel, a film-production company that he founded with the Mercers.
After decades of pursuing opportunities that disappointed, Bannon’s appropriation of Breitbart News, and his securing the Mercers as patrons, changed everything. When Trump announced his candidacy, at Trump Tower, in 2015, Bannon saw something that others missed. Perhaps it was their temperamental similarities, and their faith in their own business instincts despite repeated failure. Trump, too, was a brash huckster who despised the élites that had always spurned him. Bannon sensed that he had finally found the figure who could express that anger, leading the populist rebellion of millions of Americans who felt they had been left behind. ♦