Stephen Bannon, set to become a top White House aide to President-elect Donald Trump, is mum on whether he will sever ties with the conservative news organization he oversaw. But experts say statutes and traditions should lead him to do just that.
Trump’s transition office on Sunday announced that Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, will be chief White House strategist and senior counselor to the president. Bannon took a leave of absence from Breitbart when he joined Trump’s campaign in August.
His appointment to a senior White House post is raising new questions about his relationship with the news organization.
“No ethics counsel would allow him to continue in any kind of official capacity with Breitbart while he’s serving in a senior full-time role in the White House,” said Norman Eisen, who was special counsel to President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011, overseeing the White House’s ethics, lobbying and open government initiatives.
“To the extent that he has Breitbart ownership or financial interests, he’s going to have to report those,” Eisen said. “Let’s say he has a partial ownership interest, he’s going to have to recuse himself. And that means he cannot be talking to Breitbart.”
Eisen described federal ethics laws as “comprehensive,” supplemented by “corresponding statutes,” for which there is a “huge compendium.”
There are the obvious conflicts that would arise if Bannon trafficked in national security secrets or details about internal administration deliberations on policy issues or infighting.
Since such information would drive traffic to Breitbart’s website, helping boost revenues, a continued Bannon relationship with the news organization also could create major — and, experts say, unprecedented — financial conflicts.
“When I was doing that job [at the White House], I didn’t let anybody maintain any outside positions,” Eisen said. “It creates a very profound conflict when you’re wearing two hats. When you’re serving the president, you should only wear one hat: a senior adviser to the president.”
Other experts echoed Eisen.
“When you’re talking about someone with such a large portfolio and ties to a press entity, the potential conflicts could be potentially broad,” said Lawrence Noble, general counsel of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, a campaign watchdog group.
“There are business conflicts [guidelines] that look at whether anything you’re doing with your government position … affects your business holdings,” Noble said. “There could be other conflicts, since this is an individual coming from a news organization. That includes a potential confidentiality conflict. … Importantly, there are legal conflicts that could be seen as impairing his ability to give impartial advice to the president.”
Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment on Bannon’s plans. Alexandra Preate, CEO of the public relations firm handling press inquiries for Breitbart, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Breitbart News embraced Trump’s candidacy, and stands to benefit financially from his presidency as his largely conservative supporters seek information from non-mainstream news outlets about his administration.
In July alone, Breitbart had 192 million page views, 31 million unique views and 89 million site visits, according to a company statement.
Its influence in the conservative world cannot be denied. “And we’re the number one political Facebook page in the world, with two million more engagements than Huffington Post,” Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alexander Marlow said in the same statement.
Now, the company’s executive chairman will have the ear of a president of the United States whom The Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported is overwhelmed by the scope of his new job. In fact, the newspaper reported that Obama realized after their meeting last week that Trump needs more guidance, and he intends to spend, for an outgoing president, perhaps an unprecedented amount of time with his successor.
That’s one reason why many are alarmed about Bannon’s influence. Another is the news organization’s alleged ties to the so-called “alternative right” or “alt-right” movement. Critics say this cohort includes white supremacists, anti-Semites and anarchists.
Breitbart published “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” that says the movement has an “addiction to provocation,” employs “taboo-defying rhetoric” and is “born out of the youthful, subversive, underground edges of the internet.”
Senior Democrats are reacting harshly to the Breitbart executive’s upcoming move to the West Wing.
“After winning the presidency but losing the popular vote, President-elect Trump must try to bring Americans together — not continue to fan the flames of division and bigotry,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Monday.
“Bringing Steve Bannon into the White House is an alarming signal that President-elect Trump remains committed to the hateful and divisive vision that defined his campaign,” Pelosi said. “There must be no sugarcoating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration.”
Phil Anderson, whose firm DC Navigators represented Bannon in 2004 and who worked with Bannon on an independent expenditure political ad against Democrat John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, predicted that Bannon will be a White House player in the tradition of Lee Atwater, James Carville, Karl Rove and David Axelrod.
“What he has in common with a series of these counselor-to-the-president-type players is the ability to fuse politics, policy and public relations and media,” Anderson said. “It makes you a very impactful player inside the White House.”
“It’s a perfect role for him,” he added. “He’s an excellent strategist.”
Still, the appointment of someone like Bannon is rare. So, too, was the Trump campaign’s tone and tactics, prompting some to question whether the unconventional president-elect will be as unconventional in his enforcement of ethics rules.
Senior officials “normally are asked to give up any board positions or officer positions that establish a fiduciary relationship to a private entity,” said Robert Kelner, chairman of the election and political law practice group at Covington & Burley. “But it’s not clear that that’s strictly required by law” — though it has been the practice in recent administrations, Kelner added.
It’s still unclear whether Trump will abide by his campaign-trail pledge to rid Washington of its ethically questionable practices or, as Eisen put it, to try to “thread the needle through which he could squeeze some exceptions for his senior staff.”
“The president-elect has said he would drain the swamp,” Eisen said. “It would not be swamp-draining to make those kinds of exceptions.”