Breitbart News had a scoop on their hands: Audio tape of House Speaker Paul Ryan trashing then-nominee Donald Trump in a conference call with House Republicans after a vulgar video emerged of Trump saying he groped women with impunity. But the site didn’t release the tape until Monday, months after getting it.
The tape posted just hours after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a damaging report predicting 24 million fewer people would be insured as part of Ryan’s preferred health care plan. The exclusive audio was embedded in a story citing 15 “White House officials” who fear Ryan is bungling the Obamacare repeal process.
The release seemed to be for an audience of one, from the website led until August by Steve Bannon, now the White House chief strategist. It shows the enduring power of the site to torture Republicans deemed not conservative enough and to cause great consternation within the party.
“Breitbart’s hit pieces entirely synchronize with what Bannon’s interests would be,” said Ben Shapiro, Breitbart’s former editor-at-large who worked for Bannon until last year. “Who’s sitting pretty if this whole thing goes up in smoke? It’s not Reince. It’s not Paul Ryan.”
White House officials and Breitbart insiders insist Bannon’s fingerprints are nowhere near the attack that the news outlet unleashed on Ryan and the House GOP’s Obamacare replacement plan late Monday. And the site, known for its populist-nationalist bent and ardent support of Trump, has delivered a number of other blows to White House officials or plans without Bannon’s approval, insiders say, and is well-sourced in a conservative White House populated by a number of former Breitbart figures.
A White House spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment, and a Ryan spokesman declined to comment. Breitbart said in a statement Bannon has nothing to do with the site and that they took their time to vet the tapes — though Ryan’s conference call comments, without the audio of him criticizing the president, were reported at the time.
“Steve Bannon was not involved in this story, nor has he been involved in any Breitbart editorial decision-making since August 2016 when he left to work for the Trump campaign,” Breitbart said in a statement. “Breitbart obtained the audio in late 2016 and after a careful vetting, determined the audio to be real. To keep suggesting some kind of conspiracy with Steve Bannon and Breitbart is just more fake news.”
Ryan’s defenders say he is not that concerned about Breitbart and doesn’t make time to read the site. “I don’t think he gives a moment of thought to that tape,” said Dave Hoppe, his former chief of staff until last year. “It’s what one would call street politics. It’s not something he worries about.”
Still, Breitbart’s escalating attacks on Ryan and the GOP health plan are causing severe agitation among the legislation’s backers, including some factions in the White House, and Ryan’s allies fear the site could do more damage as he tries to push his preferred bill through. The website has also sent shivers through the White House for some of its other takedown attempts, particularly when it delivered a long story last month questioning the fate of chief of staff Reince Priebus.
The site has shown the most persistence, however, in its desire to attack Ryan, whom they have long portrayed as too moderate, especially on issues such as immigration. A piece posted on Tuesday warned that “in response to the audio, Ryan’s waning popularity, and his failures on healthcare, House GOP members have begun discussions about replacing Ryan as Speaker of the House with a Republican alternative more interested in working well with President Trump.” That seems far-fetched, legislators and close Hill watchers say.
Bannon still keeps in touch with Breitbart staffers by text message, and while he doesn’t give marching orders there, several people familiar with the operation say writers know what “Bannon would want,” as one person put it. So when the website writes, it leaves many on Capitol Hill and in the White House wondering what power players may be behind the post, and what the motive could be.
And it has added clout in the White House, because it is read by Trump’s top aides, with articles often given to the president. A Breitbart article on unsubstantiated allegations that former President Barack Obama tapped his Trump Tower phones was believed to be the reason behind his erratic tweets last Saturday morning. The site has become a must-read among many in Trump’s White House, said several White House officials. “There are a lot of us who aren’t Breitbart people who now read Breitbart,” one official said.
“They are always going to give Trump the benefit of the doubt,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser.
Breitbart’s latest salvo against Ryan is coupled with criticisms from Trump’s allies and associates who say he should be careful of embracing Ryan’s legislation, including many friends who keep in touch with Bannon.
“The president was given a damaged bill of goods by the House Republicans,” said Chris Ruddy, a close Trump friend. “For Ryan to present him a program that had not gotten buy-in from his own party and from the Senate shows they didn’t do any of the groundwork for legislation that you need to do. It’s very disappointing for the president.”
Inside the website, Ryan has long been a particular target of criticism. Throughout the presidential campaign, the site attacked him — including a piece entitled “He’s With Her: Inside Paul Ryan’s Months-Long Campaign to Elect Hillary Clinton.” It was written by Julia Hahn, who now works in the White House with Bannon. Ryan has long been widely derided and mocked inside the Breitbart office and frequently criticized by Bannon himself.
“When Steve was there, they loved to bash Ryan and McConnell,” Stone, who sometimes writes for the site, said. “And that’s the holdover mentality of the folks he assembled.”
One former Breitbart staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said before the election that Bannon would often berate staffers if they defended Ryan.
“Bannon was the chief enforcer of orthodoxy. If you defended Paul Ryan, or whatever it was that week…if you were on the side of adult rational human being you’d be an ideological traitor,” the former staffer said.
According to The Hill, Bannon would call Ryan “the enemy,” and in one internal email said the “long game” was to have Ryan “gone by spring.”
Ryan’s allies and aides privately say he is cordial to Bannon in group meetings, and the two have found something of an alliance on a border adjustment tax. But the two don’t talk on the phone, and Ryan has not gained stature in Bannon’s eyes. “No one would mistake them for being close friends,” one senior official said.
Ryan’s allies and prominent legislators are bracing for the website – which has newfound sway in Trump’s Washington — to continue trashing Ryan as he attempts the incredible lift of replacing the U.S. health care system. And conservatives are heartened by Monday’s attack, legislators and lobbyists in the movement say.
But others were more skeptical of Breitbart’s ultimate power over legislation.
Josh Holmes, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Breitbart doesn’t have immense sway among members who “do their homework and talk to their district,” and that Trump could easily overcome the site’s opposition if he actually backed the bill. “They are a threat if the bill doesn’t have the full backing of the administration,” he said. “They are very influential in the conservative echo chamber.”
Holmes said outside PACs and websites like Breitbart have the business model of stirring up Republicans against themselves, and “generating anger from within that all of your problems will be solved if only your Republican Party stood firm.”
“The Republican Party at large is going to have to figure out how to change itself from an opposition party to a governing party if it hopes to have much of a future,” Holmes said. “It remains to be seen whether the forces that became a part of the party over the last six years have the capacity to change.”
Breitbart reporters and observers say no one should expect the site to change.
Tara Palmeri contributed to this report.