On Thursday February 23, Stephen Bannon strode onto the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in lockstep with Reince Preibus. Trump’s Chief Strategist and his Chief of Staff were both smiling broadly. Their appearance was a contrast: Priebus a trim figure in a traditional dark suit, white shirt, striped tie; Bannon, a big rumpled bear of a man in dark shirt and jacket above tan chinos. The former Breitbart News executive, who has been instrumental in every speech, action and event of the Trump presidency, finally left the shadows and appeared in public, center stage. Bannon’s presence electrified the session and prepared the way for President Trump to take over on Friday, February 24. The entire Bannon/Trump show was a blockbuster debut.
Stephen K. Bannon has a diverse background; Naval officer, Harvard MBA and Goldman Sachs executive before he developed the alt-right Breitbart News network. Trump credits him with the winning strategy and surprise victory on November 8, Election Day. Bannon’s beliefs and words were heard during Trump’s dark inaugural address on January 20 when he declared, “ American carnage is over!” Now, at CPAC, Bannon spoke with assurance and captured the audience with his striking new ideas and powerful presentation. Although Trump’s first month has been characterized as “chaotic” with certain serious mishaps as the resignation of Michael Flynn, national security adviser, Bannon insisted that everything was going very smoothly. He stressed that “the deconstruction of the administrative state” had just started.
The political terms he used were probably new to most of his listeners. “Whether you’re a populist, whether you’re a limited government conservative, whether you’re a libertarian, whether you’re a economic nationalist, we want you to have our back.” Complex concepts, but his message was clear, one of radical change on the way. President Trump and Stephen Bannon would lead in new directions and they needed CPAC Republicans to follow. There was enthusiastic applause from the audience during his brief remarks. He ended on a unifying note, insisting that conservatives all had more in common than differences. “We have wide and sometimes divergent opnions,” he said. But the core of what conservatives believe is “that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders. That we’re a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” He added, “And I think that’s what unites us. And I think that’s what’s going to unite this movement going forward.”
Bannon began his deconstruction of the federal administration when he advised Trump on the selection of his cabinet appointments. The Washington Post reported on February 23 that Bannon explained in an interview that most of Trump’s choices were known to be opposed to the federal agencies they would be leading. He said, in plain language that “they weren’t appointed to lead the agencies, but to destroy them.” This included: Education, Environmental Protection, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development. Betsy de Vos ,who favored charter schools over the nation’s public schools systems, knew nothing about federal laws against public money for religious schools. She was confirmed by Vice President Pence casting his vote to break the 50 for vs. 50 against in the senate. Ben Carson, the neuro-surgeon, said he knew nothing about H.U.D. the vast agency he would lead besides growing up poor and having to be self reliant. The labor nominee , Andrew Puzder , who preferred robots to people as workers, withdrew after Republican senators who would vote against him rose to six with all Democrats opposed. Scott Pruitt , the EPA nominee had been the Attorney General of Oklahoma where he filed fourteen lawsuits against major EPA rules on behalf of oil and gas producers and electric utilities. He was confirmed days before 6,000 pages of emails were released by the courts that proved he worked closely with those companies against EPA rules during the years he was Attorney General of the state.
On Friday, February 24, President Donald Trump arrived at CPAC to deliver the most blistering speech of his first month in office. His infamous press conference on February 16 had been described as “King Lear meets Rodney Dangerfield” by Lloyd Grove. Now, he was in his most bellicose mood, attacking the press as “the enemy of the people.” “They are very smart. They are very cunning and they’re very dishonest.” The packed ballroom of supporters reacted with approving chants of “ Trump” and “U.S.A.” “The fake news doesn’t tell the truth”, he continued. “It doesn’t represent the people. And never will represent the people. And we’re going to do something about it.”
Later in the day at the White House, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, barred certain news organizations from the session. This unprecedented action included: CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed News, Politico, BBC and The Huffington Post. Reporters from the Associated Press and Time Magazine were invited but chose not to attend. The Washington Post did not send reporters. The executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, issued a statement: “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties. We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and other news organizations. Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”
The significant background to Trump’s speech at CPAC and the subsequent barring of some press organizations was Trump’s scathing attack on the F.B.I. He had accused the intelligence agency in Twitter posts of “leaking classified information” to the media about members of his administration contacting Russian counterparts during the campaign and after his inauguration. This simmering scandal would spread to the two Republican chairmen of the Senate Intelligence and House Intelligence Committees. They said they had been asked by the White House to tell the media that the F.B.I. found nothing of consequence in their ongoing investigation. This revelation caused immediate reactions from Republican legislator Darrel Issa and others calling for “a special prosecutor” since Attorney General Sessions, a close ally of Trump, needed to recuse himself. The scandal was erupting despite Trump’s attempt to deflect attention with his vicious attacks on the press at CPAC.
Epilogue: On Saturday evening, the White House announced that President Trump would not attend the White House Correspondents Dinner in April. Only Ronald Reagan missed a session in recent history when he was recovering in the hospital after an assassination attempt. The dinner is a one hundred year old tradition honoring members of the press and offering scholarships. Barack Obama attended eight times, once the night before the successful attack that killed Osama Ben Laden. Apparently, Donald J. Trump was wary of the “roast” of the president that always occurs. Perhaps, Alec Baldwin will substitute for him as he does so successfully on Saturday Night Live.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Joyce S. Anderson