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Be careful what you wish for, Donald Trump.
The president, after a few weeks of voicing displeasure that Steve Bannon was getting too much credit for his successes — and not enough blame for failures — ousted his chief advisor on Friday, allowing the freewheeling media entrepreneur a whole lot of time to pursue his passion: making and breaking political careers.
And he’ll do so from his perch at Breitbart News, where he returned Friday as executive chairman, the position he held before joining the Trump campaign and later the administration.
Long before Trump’s candidacy was a thing, Bannon was working at the margins producing films attacking Hillary Clinton, defending Sarah Palin and boosting the legacy of Ronald Reagan. They were effective pieces of evangelism, but they only spoke to the choir. When he joined the Trump campaign as “CEO” and helped him to victory, he proved beyond doubt his ability to craft narratives and change hearts and minds.
Now he’s free to work his magic against his former boss, should he choose to, which is what some insiders expect will be the case now that he has returned to Breitbart.
Bannon may have signaled his hostility toward Trump when he told The Weekly Standard on Friday that “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.”
The Hollywood Reporter reached out to Bannon for clarification on his statement that Trump’s presidency is “over,” but he did not respond.
“The populist-nationalist movement got a lot stronger today,” Breitbart editor in chief Alex Marlow said Friday in a post. “Breitbart gained an executive chairman with his finger on the pulse of the Trump agenda.”
Breitbart did not respond to several requests for comment, though after the White House confirmed the ouster of Bannon, senior editor Joel Pollak tweeted #War, which some in the media interpret as Breitbart’s declaration of war against Trump.
In fact, though, #War is a catchall phrase around Breitbart’s nondescript and unadvertised headquarters in West Los Angeles. It’s a nod to founder Andrew Breitbart’s declaration of war on the “Democrat Media Complex.”
Bannon told The Weekly Standard that he wasn’t ousted from the White House but resigned on Aug. 7, then stuck around an extra 11 days due to the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Va.
Breitbart is a force to be reckoned with, its traffic peaking at 23 million unique visitors in November, the month Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. It has since fallen to about 12 million monthly, according to comScore.
Breitbart, though, also intends on expanding into television, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect, according to some who are familiar with Bannon’s ambitions, given that Fox News has fallen out of favor with some conservatives and Trump supporters after Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were fired.
“I don’t watch news, not even Fox News anymore,” says actor Scott Baio. “There’s no difference between late-night, show business and the press. It’s all groupthink. I don’t pay attention to the propaganda.”
Baio is a passionate supporter of the president who spoke on his behalf at the Republican National Convention, so it’s likely his views about the media are shared by like-minded consumers, indicating there’s a market for a Breitbart TV. With Bannon back at its side, it might even have a leg up on Newsmax TV, One America News Network and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, even though those outlets — largely considered alternatives to Fox News — are already on air and have a big head start over whatever Breitbart decides to do on television.
Observers, though, say Breitbart needs to tread carefully. If the site and radio show is suddenly perceived as too harsh on Trump, it could lose a massive chunk of its audience, given its reputation as a pro-Trump outlet. Instead, the coverage will need to be critical when Trump veers from his agenda and positive when he does not.
Trump, therefore, will need to get used to Bannon holding his feet to the fire on immigration, Obamacare, fair trade and the like, while in his past role he has been an apologist for the president’s shortcomings.
“It all depends on how acrimonious the departure was,” says John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If it was a mutual agreement, as the White House spin suggests, then Breitbart will continue to be broadly supportive. But if Bannon is angry, Breitbart will treat Trump like a heretic. Joel Pollak is already comparing Trump to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and for right-wingers, ‘Schwarzenegger’ is German for ‘Benedict Arnold.'”
In the meantime, many Trump supporters who work in the media industry and spoke to THR on the condition of anonymity don’t believe the spin that Bannon left on his own accord and are angry at the president for ousting him. Not only is Bannon seen as a staunch advocate of America-first policies and a fearless opponent of the left and rampant political correctness, but moving on from Bannon is seen as a surrender to a hostile press that has been smearing him nonstop for a year.
“The Democrats are getting everything they want,” says one member of Friends of Abe, the private group of Republicans in Hollywood. “Trump should keep some of these people that liberals hate so much.”
Friday’s post at Breitbart’s website reads more like a press release than a news story, and is void of specifics about plans for TV or anything else. “Breitbart’s pace of global expansion will only accelerate with Steve back,” CEO Larry Solov says in the post.
Aug. 18, 3:10 p.m.: Updated with Breitbart website’s post.
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Jamie Lee Curtis
Monday Night Football