Steve Bannon's Former Hollywood Partner Breaks Silence: "He's Not a Racist" (Q&A)

Steve Bannon and Jeff Kwatinetz - Inset - Getty - H 2017
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The Firm founder Jeff Kwatinetz, a passionate liberal who was in business with Bannon for two years, says the White House chief counsel has "great character."

President Donald Trump’s controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon has ties to Hollywood, as has been widely reported, including a lucrative stake in the TV sitcom Seinfeld. But few, if any, who crossed paths with Bannon during his stint in the entertainment industry have been willing to speak candidly and on the record about him.

Jeff Kwatinetz, Bannon's former Hollywood business partner, now says he can’t take it anymore so he has decided to go on the record for the first time with The Hollywood Reporter. In a Q&A, the founder of the talent management and TV production company The Firm says some surprising things about one of the most polarizing figures in politics. Bannon was with The Firm in 2002 and 2003 when it purchased Michael Ovitz’s powerful Artist Management Group.

Why did you bring Bannon into The Firm? What did he bring to the table?

Steve was a very successful banker and is brilliant. He understood M&A and financial transactions and The Firm was growing.

Did you know his politics?

I don’t remember at what point I learned his politics, but as a liberal I believe in a free marketplace of ideas and I have people who believe all sorts of things at my company, and I’m very politically active. While Steve worked with me, I’d given seven figures to the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], presidential candidates such as Richard Gephardt and Bill Bradley as well as several statewide candidates and others. But as a liberal, I don’t judge people on their politics, I judge them on their character, and from what I knew then and what I know now, Steve has great character. He’s not a racist or anti-Semitic. Things like that are absurd.

So why are people saying those things about him?

I’ve had 20 people who worked at The Firm when Steve was there ask me why the media is lying about Steve. Unlike most of us, Steve is very at ease with himself. He doesn’t need people to correct falsehoods, and he didn’t ask us to do so. He’s a great person who wants the world to be a better place. He’s a good friend and an incredibly hard worker. He has beliefs and stands by them. Those beliefs aren’t based on racism, they’re based on what he honestly believes is best for the world. Do I agree with all of them? No. He was a Bush and a [Donald] Rumsfeld supporter, I was a Bill Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporter. But not being a liberal doesn’t mean you’re a racist.

Did you ever witness anything that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic?

I know that he’s not anti-Semitic. I am absolutely positive that he’s not anti-Semitic or racist. It is absurd. I am Jewish, Roy Furman was Jewish, Andrew Breitbart was Jewish. He is not anti-Semitic. Period.

So why does MSNBC keep talking about him being anti-Semitic?

Because they’re wrong. A lot of sane liberals realize there’s bias in the press in both directions. I’ve gotten credit in the press for things I don’t deserve credit for and I’ve been blamed in the press for things I shouldn’t be blamed for. It’s hard for people to understand how much is untrue until they’re the subject of a story. But when it comes to Steve, he’s not part of the establishment and his values are not for sale. He believes what he believes and he stands by it. People don’t like it when someone has conviction. Every reporter has their reason for attacking Steve and I can’t say what that is, just as I can’t say why Bernie Sanders was attacked, or Richard Gephardt and Nancy Pelosi and even John F. Kennedy in the day.

You speaking in defense of Bannon — is that dangerous to your career?

It’s dangerous because people want to believe what they’ve been told to believe. I’m telling you that the guy is a good person. I know it. And if it hurts my career to tell the truth about someone, then I guess it’s going to have to hurt my career, because he is a good person. Again. I do not agree with the Rumsfeldian, Neocon views, but I do agree with Steve about equal opportunity and that big mergers and big banks have hurt a lot of people and that some of the perpetrators have gone unpunished. So there are things we agree on, but we disagree about politics more than we agree. But we both love America and want the world to be a better place and we believe in being true to ourselves. I don’t want to be demonized for my views, and he shouldn’t be either.

Have you seen any of the conservative documentary films he has made?

I saw a couple. Like I said, I don’t agree with his politics. But I admire that he took action in support of what he believes in.

Would you call them “propaganda,” as others have?

I’d call Michael Moore’s films propaganda. Seriously. I mean, Roger and Me was a great film, but he makes a lot of films with untruths in them. Just by the question, “Are his films propaganda?” is a way to dismiss Steve’s point of view. I can say I don’t agree with most of what he says in his films. But having opinions is a good thing. Steve and I had very healthy arguments about politics, but he worked with me in the entertainment business and he was extremely successful.

Give me an example of his successes.

Steve and I and a few others at the company had an idea for the future of the music business and spent a year of our lives doing the banking work and analysis for the purchase of Warner Music [from Time Warner] by private equity firms. A dozen private equity firms told us our numbers were fantasy, but a group agreed with us and bought Warner Music for $2.6 billion. Then when Edgar Bronfman was brought in late as executive chairman, we decided not to go ahead because we didn’t believe in his vision, but our analysis of how to finance and purchase the company was highly accurate and it allowed the buyers to make hundreds of millions of dollars, and in the process Steve and I made millions of dollars for putting together the deal. Steve helped commandeer that incredibly successful deal, and I’ve never even seen that reported. Steve then helped me sell my sneaker company, Pony, and work out some issues we had with our distribution so that we were able to make a very healthy return.

Some are saying they don’t remember Bannon in Hollywood and that his work in the entertainment industry is an exaggeration.

They can say whatever they want. As I said, Steve helped do a $2.6 billion purchase of Warner Music and we got paid millions and millions in fees for that deal. He also helped arrange a purchase of Michael Ovitz’s management company to create the biggest management company in history. Had I agreed to a sale, it would have resulted in tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. It was my decision not to do a sale. He successfully helped us navigate the troubled transaction of Pony and he also brought into our company a little book called The Da Vinci Code. We were given exclusive rights to produce at The Firm if we gave Dan Brown $1 million, but the studio we had our first-look deal with tried to renegotiate that fee and it cost us the deal.

Can you describe his work ethic?

He worked countless hours and is ridiculously smart. He was incredibly successful at our company.

Some have said he’s hard to work with and has a big temper. Did you see any of that?

I don’t know how to answer a question like that. I don’t remember him losing his temper. No. Doesn’t everybody lose their temper? Steve was a great partner. He worked countless hours. Is he a devil if he lost his temper? Are you a devil if you supported the war in Iraq, which I was against and virtually every senator voted for, including Hillary Clinton?

Well, I guess it sounds like a loaded question, but I’ve seen so many reports from anonymous sources saying he shouted, and said this, and said that, and lost his temper.

Steve was not an unusually aggressive hothead. He’s very smart and as a result very opinionated. More than being divisive, he’s someone who would rally the troops.

Were you surprised when he joined Breitbart News and then Donald Trump?

I don’t know much about Breitbart because, as a liberal, I don’t read Breitbart. I think some controversial things have come out of Breitbart, as far as I can tell. I’ve had some interaction with Trump because he was in the entertainment industry. But I didn’t want Trump for president and I didn’t want Hillary. I wanted Bernie Sanders. And Steve’s not Trump. He has defined views that drive him and that he thinks are right, and good for him. He can’t be bought or sold.

Can you give me specific anecdotes that could help us understand his working style?

I don’t want to define someone by a specific anecdote because, not by you but by someone else, it will be re-quoted and bastardized. I can just tell you that people who worked with Steve admired him. All my partners admired him. Most of the senior executives in my company are flabbergasted by the negative portrayal of him. I had one former female executive literally crying on the phone with me: “Why are you letting people lie about Steve like this?” I mean, Steve worked his ass off and did good work.

Why isn’t anyone else in Hollywood sticking up for him like you are now?

I don’t believe that’s true. I know of two others who talked to reporters on background whose statements were ignored, as were mine.

What reporter are you talking about?

In terms of me, Connie Bruck at The New Yorker ignored what I had to say. She heard a story that Steve demanded of Ovitz that he had to sell for a price way lower and she wrote that ultimately the price we paid was much closer to the pre-Bannon negotiated price. I told her it was unequivocally false. Steve negotiated the price we paid, and she reported the opposite, based on an anonymous source at The Firm. The only thing is, I was the CEO of The Firm and I know exactly what went down, more than anyone, and Steve would know the second most. So whoever the fictitious source at The Firm is wouldn’t have known. I also told her that Steve didn’t just show up as a consultant, make a demand of Ovitz then leave. He did a $2.6 billion deal with me, made us millions of dollars and made the buyers hundreds of millions of dollars, then he helped me sell Pony, put a deal in place to buy The Da Vinci Code, and all that was ignored because it didn’t fit the narrative that Steve was some kind of devil. I will always love and care about Steve because he was a friend to me when I needed a friend, and he worked hard for me, more than was required. He was a stand-up, great guy. I’m a die-hard liberal with very liberal values and I have no reason to stand up for the guy. He doesn’t ask people to defend him, and he doesn’t seem to be bothered by the lies, he just does his thing. That’s how he always was — very self-assured.

Did you debate politics?

I only know his political views because we worked so many hours on this Warner deal, and on building our company, that we would talk about politics. He cares about politics, and I care about politics, and we disagree a lot, so it gave us a lot to talk about. I have Republican friends and Democrat friends, but I saw a study last week that said most people in California who voted for Hillary Clinton don’t have any friends who voted for Trump, and I believe that. Democrats think Republicans are devils and Republicans think Democrats are devils. But Steve is not a devil. He’s a great guy, and if it gets me in trouble for telling the truth, then it gets me in trouble.