Controversy has once again enveloped Breitbart when one of their writers, Katie McHugh, tweeted, “There would be no deadly terror attacks in the U.K. if Muslims didn’t live there. #LondonBridge” in response to the London terror attacks. Within 24 hours, she was fired.
To most observers, this was a commonsense move. You cannot defend the indefensible, so the only appropriate course of action was to terminate the employee.
But as a former Breitbart employee, I shook my head in confusion — this is the same employee who has tweeted a litany of racist, anti-immigrant, and other hateful things in the past.
What Katie tweeted is very much consistent with a worldview she has espoused publicly for quite some time. So why was this the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back? What's so different now that this was Breitbart's response?
From 2013 to 2016, I worked as a media consultant for Breitbart News. Before that, I worked on Capitol Hill as a spokesperson for various Republican members of the House, the Senate, and the House Oversight Committee. Nowadays, you can catch me on MSNBC and CNN talking about the political news of the day.
I left Breitbart because I did not want to work for the Trump propaganda outfit that Breitbart had morphed into in the 2016 election. I’m on the outside now, but looking at what Breitbart has become, I believe Katie McHugh’s firing had to do with the very reason I wanted to quit: protecting the political ambitions of Steve Bannon.
At a time when reports show that Bannon has a special ethics waiver that allows him to communicate with Breitbart, this is especially troubling. It seems to me that the separation between Breitbart and the Trump administration is, at this point, barely existent.
How I came to work at Breitbart
“World Health Organization Report: Trannies 49 Xs Higher HIV Rate,” “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews,” “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy” — this is Breitbart “News.”
I have so many people ask me about how and why I went to work with Breitbart in the first place. So let me tell you.
In the summer/fall of 2013, Matthew Boyle, whom I had first met while working as the communications director at the Daily Caller, reached out to me and asked if I'd be willing to meet with his boss, Steve Bannon. Up until this point, I had never heard of Steve.
After the unexpected death of Andrew Breitbart, I didn't know what had become of his platform. I had only interacted with Andrew once at a past job, and only briefly at that. In honesty, I wasn't that familiar with Breitbart or its content.
When I met Steve, he shared a vision for the platform that I thought was interesting and that, if done right, could be very successful. My role at Breitbart would be to help maximize the exposure and visibility of their political content and to respond to any media inquiries about their coverage.
There was so much congestion among center-right platforms — Breitbart, National Review, Weekly Standard, Washington Examiner, Daily Caller, IJ Review, Washington Free Beacon, RedState — and no one rose to distinguish themselves as the go-to outlet for Republicans the way the Huffington Post was for liberals.
Breitbart's addition of former Daily Caller, National Review, and Roll Call reporter Jonathan Strong to lead its political unit signaled to me that Breitbart was serious about building an outlet that could play a substantial role in shaping the political conversation of Washington. Breitbart would embark on a series of new hires, including Daily Caller alums Caroline May and Jeff Poor, former Washington Examiner reporter Charlie Spiering, etc.
These additions revealed how serious Steve was in making good on his vision to expand Breitbart's reach, influence, and credibility.
As this was happening, a civil war within the Republican Party was breaking out into open view. Establishment leaders like then-House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell were facing an uprising from the Tea Party wing of the GOP led by figures like Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul. This also paved the way for the formation of the Republican Freedom Caucus led by Rep. Jim Jordan.
On the surface, it was easy to cast this as an ideological battle between conservative purists and their more moderate counterparts. What Steve realized, very astutely, was that this was a confrontation between the status quo in Washington and everyone else in America who felt like they were getting screwed by a broken system.
In Breitbart, he was building a platform that for the first time could become the central hub for these disgruntled Americans to congregate around daily. Breitbart would be the place where readers could channel their anger and frustration while also being told who was responsible for all their problems.
I could see that Steve had built an incubator for rage and was ready to weaponize it by unleashing these disenchanted Americans on the political establishment.
Bannon always had political ambitions — he just needed a figurehead
Steve had one problem. The anger was there. The mob was there. But there was no figurehead to lead this movement.
In the 2014 midterm elections, Bannon and Breitbart threw their weight behind a number of anti-establishment candidates who were challenging incumbent Republican senators in the primary, like Matt Bevin, Joe Carr, and Dave Brat.
While Brat shocked the nation by upsetting Cantor, all the other challengers fell short. Internal politics muted the effectiveness of organizations like Tea Party Patriots, Heritage, Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, etc. Absent a unifying public face to represent and lead the anti-establishment crusade, there was no hope of electoral success.
Before Steve Bannon aligned himself with Donald Trump, he auditioned several other political figures. Initially, it seemed as if he was positioning Sarah Palin to be his public puppet. A number of “exclusive” columns from Palin began appearing on the homepage of Breitbart. The flirtation with Palin didn’t last long, as it was very clear she had no future as a political candidate in 2016 or beyond.
Next, Bannon courted Sen. Rand Paul. You might recall Breitbart touting itself as the exclusive destination for his weekly columns. As the 2016 GOP primary began, Bannon and Breitbart would become friendly to Sen. Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson. I remember Steve talking about being Carson's chief of staff if Carson were to win.
That’s when I realized Steve was definitively using Breitbart to pave his way to the West Wing. For him, it seemed that Breitbart was a means to an end. He could ingratiate himself with campaigns and candidates by providing them access to a platform that reached millions of Republican primary voters.
It wasn't until the first GOP debate, when Donald Trump stole the show and destroyed Jeb Bush, that Bannon and Breitbart went all in for Trump.
In March 2016, I watched in shock as Breitbart refused to stand by reporter Michelle Fields when she was grabbed by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. It was clear that Breitbart prioritized its relationship with Trump ahead of protecting one of its own. The incident revealed how much Breitbart was now a part of the Trump campaign. I made the personal decision to terminate my relationship with Breitbart, in large part because I had no desire to work for Trump’s de facto propaganda machine. If this was the direction that Breitbart and the GOP were headed, I wanted nothing to do with it.
The real reason Breitbart fired Katie McHugh
It might seem strange that Katie McHugh was fired over comments about Muslims she has made frequently in the past. But I think it’s all about Bannon.
Had Breitbart not taken this action, reporters would have been asking the White House and Bannon to comment. Questions like, "Do you agree or disagree," with Katie's tweet, and, "Do you think she should be fired or not, and why?" The media would certainly ask Bannon about how he would handle this situation with someone he hired directly. In short, it would be a distraction and a nuisance at a time when Steve has just clawed himself out of the doghouse.
In a week when the focus is on former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Katie is a distraction no one in the White House needs. I am convinced that if Steve Bannon weren’t in the White House, Katie would still be at Breitbart. After all, Breitbart, as Steve was fond of saying, is the “Fight Club” and no one makes them do anything they don’t want to do.
During the presidential race, Bannon took a “temporary leave of absence” from running Breitbart to become the CEO of Trump’s campaign. That “temporary” leave became permanent once Trump won the election and appointed Bannon chief White House strategist.
If you ask the leadership at Breitbart, they would say, “Steve has not had any control over Breitbart’s editorial since he left Breitbart.” And yet it was reported last week that the White House granted Bannon a special ethics waiver that allows him to interact with his former employer.
This waiver suggests what I’ve suspected for a long time, that there is no line of separation between Bannon and Breitbart. There is no question that we’ve entered unchartered territory. It’s clear to me that Breitbart is an extension of Bannon and now there's a documented trail to prove it.
Reports have shown that Breitbart has faced an exodus from advertisers and a drop in traffic in recent months as the Trump administration has dealt with a rash of investigations, internal staff turmoil, and self-inflicted wounds. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it, though — because for better or worse, this is a platform that has great reach and access within the White House. In many ways, they are at their most dangerous when they are at their most vulnerable.
This is as close to having a state-controlled media organization as we've ever had in this country. Every day, those who read Breitbart are spoon-fed propaganda designed to paint an alternate reality that ignores fact and truth. This audience is conditioned to think the worst of any dissenting opinion and will never abandon Trump — at least as long as Steve Bannon doesn’t.
Kurt Bardella is a former media consultant for Breitbart News and a former spokesperson for Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Kurt is currently the CEO of Endeavor Strategies and the publisher of the Morning Hangover. Find him on Twitter @KurtBardella.