Steve Bannon Prepares for Prison

Steve Bannon is taking his show on the road. Convicted by a federal jury in 2022 for contempt of Congress, the right-wing agitator is set to spend four months in a Connecticut penitentiary starting July 1. It’s the latest act in the iconoclastic performance of Donald Trump’s longtime adviser and confidant, one that parallels the legal woes of his old boss and the hundreds of Jan. 6 rioters serving prison time. Bannon, who resisted multiple chances to comply with a Congressional subpoena and avoid incarceration, seems to relish the role he has cast himself in. “I don’t fear this at all,” he says, sitting in his D.C. townhouse a stone’s throw away from the Supreme Court. “I’m a political prisoner.”

For now, he’s confining himself to his multi-million dollar Capitol Hill home, which serves as the headquarters of his podcast, War Room. On a recent Saturday morning, he sat down for an episode in his cluttered, sun-deprived basement studio amid a repository of Bannon curiosities. The bookcase includes Robert F. Kennedy’s conspiracy theory extravaganza The Real Anthony Fauci and the liberal icon Barbara Ehrenreich’s landmark study of American poverty Nickel and Dimed. There are shrines to MAGA icons: a poster of Rudy Giuliani, a canvas portrait of Peter Navarro, a bust of Bannon himself. They are surrounded by stacks of newspapers, books, supplement containers, and other tchotchkes that make it impossible to move with ease. On a fireplace mantle is a crucifix, gold-framed pictures of Christ, and a sign that reads: “There are NO conspiracies but there are NO coincidences — Stephen K. Bannon.”

Unlike other MAGA media personalities who largely seem to follow Trump’s lead, Bannon, 70, can rightly claim influence over the movement. He ran Trump’s 2016 campaign in its final weeks and served a brief turn as his chief White House strategist before being fired, but remains in sporadic contact with the former President. Through War Room, which is one of the most popular right-wing podcasts in America, Bannon worked with Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz to help oust Kevin McCarthy, the first time in U.S. history the House voted to remove a Speaker mid-term. He waged a relentless campaign against Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel until Trump finally pushed her out. In recent months, Bannon has hosted training sessions across the country, hoping to turn his fans into a far-flung network of citizen activists; hundreds attended in Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, according to Bannon’s staff. The aim, he says, is to galvanize a new class of America First diehards to volunteer as school board members, precinct captains, and poll watchers.

Bannon’s reach is limited to a factional constituency. While his shows average more than 100,000 viewers on the pro-Trump platforms Rumble and Gettr and nearly a million downloads on Apple Podcasts, it remains a siloed audience of the already initiated. But within that universe, Bannon exerts outsize influence. “He’s like MAGA’s warrior poet,” says Reed Galen, a Never Trump operative who founded the Lincoln Project. “He's got the philosophy, he's got the strategy, but he's got the tactics too.”

On the brink of his prison stint, Bannon is attempting to rally an audience he calls an “army of the awakened” to sustain his anti-establishment crusade. By playing the martyr, Bannon hopes to elevate his brand of burn-it-all-down populism ahead of the presidential election. Since his days running Breitbart News, Bannon has stoked Americans’ grievances by portraying the democratic institutions they once trusted as a front for the elites they despise. Now, he’s capitalizing on Trump’s and his own legal woes in the hopes of orchestrating an uprising designed to return Trump to the White House and smash the institutions of government. “I’m at war with the ruling class of this country,” he says. “I’ve dedicated my life to this. I don’t have a social life. This is my life.”

President Donald Trump congratulates Bannon, a senior counselor to the President, during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 22, 2017.<span class="copyright">Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images</span>
President Donald Trump congratulates Bannon, a senior counselor to the President, during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 22, 2017.Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

Bannon appears unfazed at the prospect of four months in prison and says his exposure to “structured environments” in youth has prepared him. After growing up working-class in Richmond, Va., he attended an all-boys Catholic military school from the age of 12, and later served for seven years as a Naval officer.

Bannon’s pugilistic approach to the world is most evident today in the us-versus-them populism he champions. He created the War Room podcast in 2019 to oppose Trump’s first impeachment with two co-hosts, communications strategist Jason Miller and a former Breitbart colleague Raheem Kassam. After Trump’s acquittal, the podcast became a haven for Covid misinformation and a rousing force for the “Stop the Steal” movement. The Brookings Institution found that War Room had more episodes containing falsehoods about election fraud in the months leading up to Jan. 6 than any other popular political podcast. At the same time, Bannon was part of a “command center” of Trump allies and operatives plotting to overturn the election and spoke to Trump twice on Jan. 6, according to White House call logs.

For those reasons, the Congressionally appointed, bipartisan Jan. 6 Committee sought Bannon’s testimony and relevant documents. “We were interested in anyone who was involved in the planning and preparations and advanced publicity for the events of Jan. 6,” says Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democratic member of the House panel. “We were just looking for information.” Bannon, Raskin adds, had no basis to resist their inquiry: “The basic rule of American jurisprudence is that everybody owes the government testimony when subpoenaed.” Bannon sees it differently. “My lawyer told me, ‘You don't have to comply with this. He's exerted executive privilege.’” The courts rejected that argument. Trump wasn’t President when the subpoena was issued, rendering him constitutionally unable to exert executive privilege, and by the 2020 election, Bannon hadn’t been a federal employee for three years.

In flouting the law, Bannon sought to discredit the Jan. 6 Committee, which in turn urged the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against him. After a federal judge gave him the opportunity to testify and stay out of jail, Bannon still spurned cooperation. After less than three hours of deliberation, a federal jury of his peers convicted him in July 2022 on two counts of contempt of Congress, each of which carried a minimum 30 days in prison. Three months later, the judge sentenced him to four months of incarceration and a $6,500 fine.

Like Trump, Bannon remains fixated on the 2020 election. His greatest regret, he says now, was failing to block the Senate from certifying the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, an effort condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike as unconstitutional. Such a scenario would have triggered a contingency election decided by each state’s delegation in the House of Representatives getting a single vote. There, Trump had the upper hand: Republicans held a 27-23 advantage. Of the Capitol rioters, he says, “As well-meaning as some of those people were, it was just not what the fucking focus was.” As we’re talking, Bannon rises to his feet and morphs into a performative rage. If not for Vice President Mike Pence, who Bannon falsely claims had the constitutional power to reject electoral votes, the plot would have worked. “This is why Pence is Judas fucking Pence and has no future in the MAGA movement!” Bannon shouts. “Judas Pence is a dead man walking.” Bannon later says he was speaking metaphorically about the end of Pence’s political career.

Bannon appears in Manhattan Supreme Court to set his trial date in New York City on May 25, 2023.<span class="copyright">Curtis Means—Pool/Getty Images</span>
Bannon appears in Manhattan Supreme Court to set his trial date in New York City on May 25, 2023.Curtis Means—Pool/Getty Images

Bannon likes to tout his Catholicism. He credits the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, with helping him to achieve sobriety in the 1990s. “His most important thing was to go back over your actions of the day before, very specifically, to be observant in your actions,” he says. “Think about your actions.” Today, Ignatius dominates his thoughts for different reasons; he was imprisoned three times by the Spanish inquisition for raising spiritual questions in public. “Ignatius of Loyola is on my mind every day,” Bannon says.

If nothing else, Bannon understands the power of being provocative. He keeps MSNBC on two televisions in the basement. The progressive network, he says, is the better place to follow the right—not the left—because its programming, he says, is “pure on war.” This is all part of his reconnaissance mission. “He really thrives off of monitoring the opposition and seeing what they're doing,” says Miller, a senior campaign adviser to Trump. “Steve helped put together the fighting machine that really helped scare straight a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill who were going soft.”

Bannon, who served on a destroyer but did not see combat, uses his War Room podcast to fight back. “In the information war,” he says, “it’s a military command post.” While Bannon is in prison, there will be a rotating cast of guest hosts, who will include Trump loyalists such as former Fox News host Monica Crowley, firebrand conservative lawyer Mike Davis, and Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Bannon prepares to film a broadcast of <em>War Room</em> during the CPAC conference on Feb. 23, 2024.<span class="copyright">Kent Nishimura—Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Bannon prepares to film a broadcast of War Room during the CPAC conference on Feb. 23, 2024.Kent Nishimura—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bannon records his podcast at a prodigious clip: four hours a day on weekdays and a two-hour show on Saturdays. He delivers monologues that inflame the fears and anxieties of the MAGA right: migrant border crossings, civilization in disarray, often erroneous tales of election mischief. His soliloquies veer from history lessons to explanations of capital markets. Other segments are motivational pep talks. Bannon encourages his viewers to get involved in local government, hard-right advocacy organizations, and the broader MAGA movement. He offers to fill a void in their lives. “One of the most important things is you will unlock things and meet people you have never met before from all over the country that have similar attitudes, similar interests,” he says on the Saturday show. “It just opens up a door to you.”

In our interview, Bannon cites the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone as a formative text. Putnam argues that Americans have suffered from the loss of civic society groups that once created a sense of community. “It’s very powerful about the atomization of the American experience,” Bannon says. “You don't have the civic society. You don't have bowling leagues. You're on social media.” Putnam’s critics have argued that associational life in the U.S. hasn’t disappeared but evolved into new forms. But to Bannon, the phenomenon has created a sense of disconnection and downward mobility that spawned the rise of right-wing populist nationalism. It’s also the organizing principle behind his podcast. “Americans feel so forgotten by the government,” Greene tells me. “The War Room makes these people feel important again.”

The test of Bannon’s power over the coming months may not be whether he can influence Trump’s base. It’s whether he can influence Trump himself. The two speak occasionally these days, according to sources close to both men. Bannon sends War Room clips to Trump, which are designed to shape messaging and test out attack lines. “We’ve got a man who’s got a really successful show,” Trump said of Bannon in a recent speech. “Everybody watches it. I watch it as often as I can. He’s a smart guy, and he’s actually got a big heart, but I won’t tell people that because I’ll ruin his reputation.” Last week, Trump called Bannon’s cell phone while he was on air, interrupting an interview with Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake.

An image of Bannon is seen as people attend CPAC on Feb. 22, 2024.<span class="copyright">Matt McClain—The Washington Post/Getty Images</span>
An image of Bannon is seen as people attend CPAC on Feb. 22, 2024.Matt McClain—The Washington Post/Getty Images

By many measures, the United States is on the upswing: unemployment is at 4%; the nation’s GDP remains by far the world’s highest; inflation is abating; Americans’ investment income is soaring. Yet surveys find that people aren’t feeling these economic gains in their daily lives; high grocery and gas prices remain a source of frustration. But Bannon believes the sense many have of losing their place in America is stronger than any statistic. To that end, he senses an opening. “Dark is good right now,” Bannon says, “because it is dark.” Even his adversaries recognize Bannon’s abilities. “He’s a guy of extraordinary capacity and potential,” Raskin says. “But at some point he decided to act like a Batman villain and to side with people who are working against the common good of our society. That’s just sad.”

When I ask Bannon, wearing his trademark rumpled black button-down layered over multiple black polo shirts, whether he’ll be able to call into the show from prison, he grins: “I have no idea, but highly unlikely.” He quips that he won’t spend as much time in the weightroom as the prison library. He expects to voraciously follow the news and communicate with his associates. He’ll have access to a prison email, and his lawyer can deliver messages on his behalf. “You think I’m going to come out and be prison ripped?” Bannon says. “No, I'll have a lot to do.”

After his prison term ends in November, Bannon intends to resume his efforts to mobilize the MAGA right and push Trump toward his radical agenda. On the Saturday episode of War Room, Bannon threatens former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who oversaw the Trump-Russia investigation, suggesting he would be rounded up and prosecuted in a second Trump term, telling McCabe: “You should be very worried.” Bannon doesn’t cite specific charges—no law enforcement entity has accused McCabe of any—and McCabe later called Bannon’s broadside “anti-democratic” and “disgusting.” But by the time I left Bannon’s house, the attack was circulating all over right-wing social media.

Eventually, it made it to the biggest MAGA influencer of them all. The next week, Donald Trump posted a news story on his Truth Social account about Bannon’s threat to McCabe.

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