White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon is often shrouded in mystery, portrayed by “Saturday Night Live” as the Grim Reaper or on the cover of Time magazine as “the great manipulator.”
But at Thursday’s annual Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) in National Harbo, Md., Bannon presented a softer image as he made a rare public appearance with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Many other major administration players appear frequently on cable news and Sunday political talk shows, fitting for the staff of a president who avidly watches television and hosted a reality show. But Bannon, the controversial former head of Breitbart News, has preferred to stay out of the limelight.
Still, Bannon was relaxed and smiling on the convention hall stage next to a chipper Priebus. There, along with American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp, the two sought to temper Bannon’s public image and rebut reports of discord between the administration’s top two advisers.
“Steve, you are a really likable guy. We should do this more often,” Schlapp said as the three men chuckled along with the CPAC audience.
“Most of the time,” Priebus said as he patted a smiling Bannon on the back.
Throughout the interview, Bannon echoed the nationalist leanings that have made him one of Trump’s closest advisers and one of the administration’s most vilified figures on the left.
At CPAC, Bannon regularly criticized the media as the “opposition party” for mischaracterizing the administration, warning that the “corporatist, globalist media” would fight against Trump’s economic nationalist agenda.
Still, the CPAC appearance marked an image change for the man quoted weeks after Trump’s election by The Hollywood Reporter with an ominous message about how “darkness is good.” Instead, Bannon repeatedly preached about Trump’s victory as both as a moment for the entire conservative movement to come together and as a catalyst for an optimistic American future.
“Whether you are a populist, a limited-government conservative, libertarian, economic nationalist, we have wide and sometimes divergent opinions,” he said.
“But the center core of what we believe, that we are a nation with an economy, not an economy in some global marketplace within open borders… that’s what unites us and will unite this movement going forward.”
“We want you to have our back,” he added.
The crowd interrupted him with claps and cheers.
“But more importantly, hold us accountable for what we promised,” Bannon said.
Bannon’s chummy appearance at CPAC contrasted with his previous history with the conservative gathering, where many conservatives have long kept the once-fringe “alt-right” portion of the party at arm’s length. As the head of Breitbart, Bannon once said he wanted to turn the site into a “platform” for the alt-right, a conservative movement associated with racism, white nationalism and populism.
Under Bannon, Breitbart used to hold counter-events with controversial figures who hadn’t been invited to speak at CPAC. The event, called “The Uninvited,” would sometimes even take place in the same hotel hosting CPAC.
But now that Trump’s victory has ushered in a conservative embrace of Bannon and his ideas, Breitbart and to a lesser extent, the alt-right movement itself, things have changed.
“Matt, I’d like to thank you for finally inviting me to CPAC,” Bannon said to start off the event to a roar of laughter from the crowd.
“Here’s what we decided to do at CPAC with ‘The Uninvited’,” Schlapp responded. “We decided to say that everybody is part of our conservative family.”
Much of the Bannon’s appearance centered on his purportedly good relationship with Priebus. The two have been hounded by reports of rivalry and in-fighting between their White House camps, inspiring them to mount a public campaign to insist that they’re working well together.
Thursday’s appearance marked the most public part of that effort so far.
“The biggest misconception is everything that you’re reading. We share an office suite together, we are basically together from 6:30 in the morning ‘til 11 o’clock at night,” Priebus said.
“If the party and the conservative movement are together, just like Steve and I, they can’t be stopped. And President Trump was the one person…that was able to bring this party and this movement together,” he added. “Steve and I know that and we live it every day.”
The conversation ended after a little less than half an hour, with the two men trading barbs and quips to drive home the intended message of White House unity.
When asked by Schlapp what he liked most about Bannon, a suited Priebus jokingly needled Bannon for his outfit, a black button-down shirt underneath a black suit jacket.
“I like how many collars he has,” Priebus said, extending his hand to touch Bannon’s chest as the three men chuckled.
“That’s an interesting look.”
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