It’s been two and a half years since Steve Bannon was exiled from the Trump administration, but the former White House chief strategist is still trying to coordinate messaging for the president. Instead of pulling the strings from Trump Tower or the West Wing, however, Bannon is delivering his strategic advice — now on impeachment — via podcast from a D.C. basement.
Bannon, along with former Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller and former Nigel Farage aide Raheem Kassam, has been broadcasting a combination radio program and podcast called War Room: Impeachment for over 100 consecutive days. Its hosts represent a faction of Trumpists who have been cast out of the president’s inner circle, but still believe in the project and are trying to offer aid and insight from exile. Bannon famously was sacked from his position in the administration, Miller was blocked from even joining after it was revealed that he had gotten a subordinate pregnant during an extramarital affair on the Trump campaign, while Kassam has left two different conservative publications in the past two years.
They claim their outsider status allows them to be a “true messaging platform” on impeachment and test out the best arguments to defend Trump, unhindered by hopes for advancement within the government or the Republican establishment. Whereas a White House aide doing a cable-news hit is deeply constrained both by the format and their position in government, these three can say whatever the hell they want.
The basement studio is located in Bannon’s headquarters in D.C., a Capitol Hill townhouse formerly known as the Breitbart embassy. Bannon sits at the head of a green cloth-covered table. In front of him are books by Bernard-Henri Levy, Peter Bergen, and two officers from the People’s Liberation Army. Over the course of the three-hour broadcast, he’s served a constant stream of caffeinated beverages — usually coffee, but sometimes a can of diet Red Bull as a change of pace. He looks almost unchanged from his stint in the White House, wearing a battered Barbour jacket over multiple collared shirts, along with khaki cargo pants and a pair of white New Balance tennis shoes.
Along the side of the table sit Miller and Kassam. Both sit hunched over MacBooks and riff off of Bannon on-air. The show is broadcast seven days a week and features a wide range of high-profile Trump allies including Reince Priebus, Rand Paul, and of course, Rudy Giuliani. It is syndicated nationally in the evening on a right-wing talk radio network, simulcast on Newsmax TV, the right-wing cable-news network owned by Trump confidante Chris Ruddy, and available for download on all the standard podcast platforms. The podcast version of the show has received over a million downloads so far, and while the size of the radio and streaming audience is not known — the network doesn’t get rated by Nielsen — there are certainly lots of people hearing it.
One of Bannon’s key arguments is the Republicans should be demanding and facilitating an extended Senate trial — in contrast to the strategy that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced of having a short trial without witnesses in service of a speedy acquittal. For Bannon, this is “the quick and dirty” option that will still leave a dark cloud of doubt looming over Trump and his presidency. In his view, a short trial just allows House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff to present curated anti-Trump talking points to a national audience without a chance for them to be fully rebutted. By contrast, Bannon thinks an extended trial with witnesses called by both sides — including former Trump national security adviser John Bolton and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney by Democrats, and former Obama CIA director John Brennan and the anonymous whistle-blower by Republicans — would “get to the heart of it.” This sort of long trial would force the “Washington apparatus” to defend itself in public, he says, and inevitably lead to “a real exoneration [for Trump] and then a vindication in November.”
Earlier this month, when Intelligencer sat in on the taping, the three celebrated their 100th episode and canceled their scheduled guests to discuss the fatal drone strike against Qasem Soleimani — specifically, how Republicans should defend the controversial decision on its own terms and in the context of impeachment. Miller argues that “this entire impeachment push was about a foreign-policy disagreement with unelected bureaucrats who disagreed with how the president was handling Ukraine.” The foreign-policy debate over Iran would be another chapter in the Democratic “nullification project.” In Bannon’s view, Speaker Nancy Pelosi would use the “war-powers debate to reinforce the narrative that [Trump] is a clear and present danger.”
The arguments are leavened with a certain self-awareness that isn’t always found on other right-wing media platforms. Miller smilingly references acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s disastrous October press briefing as “Mick Mulvaney’s first and last press conference” on-air. Bannon contrasts his program with strident Trump defenders like Sean Hannity. “I love Sean, but it’s not as hardcore as Sean is — every day with just the repeating of things,” says the former top White House aide. “It’s questioning because we think in the questioning, that’s where the power comes.”
In Bannon’s telling, the show’s origin comes from an October 2019 appearance that he did on conservative talk radio where he stated matter-of-factly that Trump would be impeached and it would go to the Senate. He recalls that listeners went crazy, saying, “That’s fake news, witch hunt, deep state.” His response, “Yeah, it is that. But this is going to happen.” Even more blowback followed from a quote he gave the New York Post that “as sure as the turning of the Earth, [Trump] is going to be impeached by Pelosi in the next six weeks.” After that, Bannon decided he needed a show to “go through the reality, not the spin” to a MAGA audience.
Among the listeners in the nation’s capital — and the Capitol — is Republican congressman Matt Gaetz. He told Intelligencer that the show “has been very important to me.” The high-profile Trump ally cited its influence in how he questioned three law professors called as witnesses by Democrats in House impeachment hearings. Other GOP members then followed suit and railed against the witnesses as biased for their past contributions to Democratic campaigns. Gaetz added, “A lot of people in the White House listen to it.”
The show certainly has a lot of insider touches. Washington jargon is used familiarly and without explanation, the fashion choices of prominent White House reporters are casually referenced, and Kassam is teased for being a habitué of the patio of Morton’s Steakhouse. The result is that the discussion on-air is almost identical to that off-air. But in Bannon’s view, “People love that stuff … one thing we’re trying to do is make sure people understand we are giving you an insider’s perspective. And people want that.”
Bannon’s tastes are far more catholic than those of most right-wing pundits, and there are broad and frequent digressions. Recent shows have included analogies comparing Hungarian strongman Victor Orban to black conservatives in the United States, extended reminiscences about the Trump campaign, and references to a favored historical theory of Bannon’s that the United States is on the verge of a “fourth turning” that would bring major political upheaval on par with the Great Depression or the Civil War.
But Bannon is betting that’s part of the show’s appeal to listeners. He may not have succeeded as Trump’s Karl Rove, but Bannon could still end up becoming the MAGA Rachel Maddow, filling a niche of diving deep into pet issues for a hardcore partisan audience. He says of his listeners: “They want weeds. They need weeds.”
In the meantime, the show will continue as Bannon pledged, “every day until the day after the acquittal-slash-exoneration of President Donald J. Trump.”