President Donald Trump this morning urged supporters to watch a Fox News segment that was based on research overseen by White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon in his prior role as chief executive of the conservative group Government Accountability Institute (GAI).
Last August, Bannon promoted the GAI report in an article he co-authored at Breitbart.com, which he was simultaneously running as chief executive. Breitbart is now fighting to gain permanent reporting credentials from the Senate Press Gallery in the face of criticism that the website lacks editorial independence because of its entwinement with GAI.
This morning Trump tried to defuse criticism of his ties to Russia by encouraging his followers to “Watch @foxandfriends now on Podesta and Russia!”:
During the segment in question, conservative activist Peter Schweizer detailed connections between former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and a Kremlin-backed bank.
Schweizer is both president of GAI and a Breitbart senior editor-at-large, and he and Bannon promoted the Podesta allegations last year in their roles with both. Their story provides a case study in how top Breitbart editors use the website to promote the work of a conservative group that pays them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
The Podesta claims were first raised in a July 31 GAI report titled “From Russia with Money: Hillary Clinton, the Russian Reset, and Cronyism,” which purported to detail unsavory connections between Clinton and her associates and Russia. On August 1, Bannon and Schweizer co-bylined a story breaking the news on Breitbart, and discussed it on the Bannon-hosted SiriusXM program Breitbart News Daily.
“It’s gonna cause a firestorm because they’re going to have to answer the question, and Mr. Podesta’s gonna have to answer the question, why he failed to disclose this, and we’re going to drill down on what all this means,” Bannon commented at the time. “We’ve got a lot more of this coming.”
The GAI report and Breitbart article were released amid a slew of news stories detailing the Trump campaign’s friendly stance toward the Kremlin, and just days after The New York Times reported that “American intelligence agencies have told the White House they now have ‘high confidence’ that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee.”
Sixteen days after the GAI report was released, Bannon took a leave of absence from Breitbart to become the Trump presidential campaign’s chief executive.
Between its initial promotion of the GAI report and Election Day, Breitbart produced at least six more reports on GAI’s Podesta story. Meanwhile, the Bannon-headed Trump campaign issued a statement calling on Podesta to provide more information or step down.
Following Clinton’s defeat, conservatives largely dropped the story. But after FBI Director James Comey announced during a March 20 congressional hearing that the bureau is investigating “whether members of President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election,” right-wing politicians and media outlets began casting about for angles they could take to mitigate that damaging narrative.
The next day, fringe gadfly Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) called for a congressional investigation into Podesta, relying on information in the August GAI report. Over the past week, Breitbart has produced two reports on the allegations, both citing GAI’s August report as the original source of the claims. The story has apparently gained enough attention on the right to catch the eye of Fox & Friends producers, generating this morning’s Trump-promoted interview with Schweizer.
The new revelation about Breitbart’s overlap with GAI comes at a bad time for the outlet.
Yesterday, the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery announced that it would not approve Breitbart’s request for permanent Capitol Hill credentials, citing in part concerns that key editors on the masthead have received payments from GAI. This suggests that the website falls short of the Senate Press Gallery’s requirement that outlets be “editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government.” The committee has sought more information from the conservative outlet, with a deadline of April 14.
Schweizer received $778,000 from GAI between 2012 and 2015 while simultaneously appearing on Breitbart’s masthead. And while serving as chief executive of both institutions, Bannon received $376,000 from GAI.
As the Podesta reports show, top editors at Breitbart are getting paid by another organization and using their platform to produce and oversee reporting based on that organization’s work. This violation of the press gallery’s bylaws should lead to the rejection of Breitbart’s application.