Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has spent nearly two years promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and Democratic presidential primary candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on his War Room podcast in a mutually beneficial relationship that could have disastrous public health consequences for the country and the world.
Both men have used their substantial platforms to spread incorrect information about vaccines and COVID-19, which could now reach an even wider audience given Kennedy’s longshot campaign.
Bannon reportedly encouraged Kennedy to run against President Joe Biden in the Democratic Party primary, believing he could be “both a useful chaos agent in [the] 2024 race and a big name who could help stoke anti-vax sentiment around the country,” according to CBS’ Robert Costa. Other right-wing pundits have similarly exploited Kennedy’s run as an attempt to undermine Biden’s support among Democrats with the aim of weakening him in the general election.
Costa’s reporting aligns with Bannon’s public support of Kennedy on War Room. Since July 2021, Bannon has interviewed and provided a platform for Kennedy, his publisher, and colleagues involved in his anti-vaccine work. In addition, Bannon has repeatedly hyped Kennedy’s book, a discredited diatribe against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the face of the United States’ effort to mitigate the risks of COVID-19. Even the magazine of the Trump-aligned Claremont Institute concluded that “Kennedy’s book has all the objectivity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Even relative to other right-wing media, Bannon’s podcast is a hotbed of conspiracy theories, many of which relate directly to COVID-19 and vaccines. He frequently pushes junk science from discredited charlatans like Naomi Wolf, has celebrated efforts to disrupt vaccine distribution, and claimed the pandemic was everything from a way to eradicate religion to a form of global war deliberately unleashed by China.
Given this feverish and paranoid atmosphere, it’s not surprising that Bannon amplified Kennedy’s longstanding efforts to discredit safe and effective vaccines, including those that protect against COVID-19, and has now latched onto his nascent campaign. Both are ecumenical and opportunistic in their conspiracism, including pushing QAnon messages and influencers.
As the son of Robert Kennedy and nephew to John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is unusually well-positioned to attract attention in his almost certainly doomed challenge to Biden. But Kennedy can benefit from even a failed campaign by selling more books and raising the profile of Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine organization he founded.
Bannon likewise benefits from hyping Kennedy’s run. He can use Kennedy to sow chaos in the Democratic primary and push vaccine denialism as a tool to further undermine what he refers to as the “administrative state,” a longstanding goal which would result in a collapse of public capacity to address future pandemics, among other consequences. And although Bannon has provided a platform for Kennedy, it would be a mistake to give him too much credit for the candidate’s larger purchase in the political ecosystem. As is often the case with Bannon, he’s bodysurfing a wave and mistaking himself for Poseidon.
Bannon sows the ground for Kennedy’s eventual candidacy
On July 24, 2021, Bannon interviewed Kennedy twice over the course of two hour-long shows. Although Kennedy’s The Real Anthony Fauci wouldn’t be released for months, Bannon was already hyping it. Tony Lyons, the book’s publisher, would make frequent appearances on War Room in the coming months.
Bannon mentioned the book and disparagingly referenced a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate that listed Kennedy as one of the 12 biggest spreaders of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
“When you make your speeches, do your analysis, you’ve got your center, you put out information, you put out reports — do you think that you’re adding to, or your focus is on digital hate?” Bannon asked. “Does that concept apply to any of the work that you’re doing?”
“Not only does it not have anything to do with digital hate, it has to do — we don’t put out any misinformation,” Kennedy responded.
Sound difficulties forced Bannon to cut the interview short and return to it during the following hour’s broadcast. In reintroducing Kennedy, Bannon again promoted the upcoming book, referring to it as something “I know our audience is going to want to pile into.” The interview lasted for roughly half of that episode.
Kennedy’s book was published in mid-November 2021. That month, Stephanie Locricchio — Kennedy’s colleague at Children's Health Defense — appeared on War Room to hype the book and call for a “worldwide walkout” to oppose vaccine mandates. In December, Bannon devoted an entire hourlong episode to an interview with Kennedy to promote the book and his broader anti-vaccine work.
Bannon’s efforts to spread Kennedy’s message only increased in 2022. That April, Bannon reaired their hourlong discussion from the previous December. The following month, Lyons — Kennedy’s publisher – appeared twice on War Room to hype the book. Locricchio also returned in May 2022, once again to promote Kennedy’s anti-Fauci book. Mary Holland, the president and general counsel at Children’s Health Defense, was on War Room a day later and also pushed the book. That August, Bannon praised Kennedy alongside other anti-vaccine advocates like Wolf and Robert Malone.
Between October 2022 and the end of the calendar year, Lyons appeared on War Room at least 8 times, each time mentioning or plugging Kennedy’s book. Producer Jeff Hays, who adapted Kennedy’s book into a film, was a guest on War Room twice in October to promote the movie, once with Lyons and once on his own.
In the lead-up to 2023, Bannon’s War Room had helped lay the groundwork for an old school ratfucking. The next step would be gassing up a spoiler candidate to serve as a “chaos agent.”
Bannon champions Kennedy’s “crusade” to win the Democratic nomination
Kennedy filed his statement of candidacy on April 5. Bannon and his guests immediately began framing Kennedy as a fellow traveler who shared their same enemies, even if not all of their exact policies.
On April 10, days before Kennedy’s official launch announcement on April 19, Bannon and Wolf discussed the opposition he would face from the Democratic National Committee.
“Any campaign that made a crusade of Wuhan lab, Tony Fauci, the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, and the vax and everything about vaccines, right, all the science and logic of it, would be something that would help the American people. Do you agree with me on that?” Bannon asked. “And look, he’s a very progressive, liberal Democrat and I’m a right-wing populist, but something like that would help the country just basically sort through these issues that have come up so big over the last couple of years, ma’am?”
“Yeah, I’m actually scared to answer that publicly because when you like him, the entire legacy media gets angry at both of you,” Wolf replied.
After outlining how great a Kennedy challenge would be for Democrats, Wolf painted him as a victim of the party’s structures.
“I am not at all persuaded that the DNC, which I see as a group of criminals at this point, are going to let any challenger who’s not wholly owned by the DNC, and wholly owned by whoever owns the DNC, bring up those issues,” Wolf said. “I think there’s going to be a massive mobilization against a campaign like his, and a campaign like Marianne Williamson’s.”
Two days later, Bannon devoted an entire episode to discussing a speech Kennedy had just made at Hillsdale College, interspersing long clips of his remarks with obsequious praise.
Then on April 24, Bannon escalated his rhetoric, arguing that if failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake wasn’t available to be Trump’s future running mate, that Kennedy would make a great choice.
“Somebody asked about Robert F. Kennedy, and the great speech at Hillsdale, and his opening speech, and what did I think about his prospects,” Bannon said, describing a recent public appearance he’d made. “I said, ‘Look, I’m a Kari Lake person, but if Kari Lake becomes governor, as she should, with this court case, or if not, if she runs for the Senate — if she’s not available to be Trump’s VP, that Bobby Kennedy would be, I think, would be an excellent choice for President Trump to consider.' It was a standing ovation.”
He reiterated the point the following day on Charlie Kirk’s podcast.
“I see a very compelling reason — although I know Bobby Kennedy is terrible on guns, he ain’t great on Ukraine — but he talks about going after the administrative deep state in a very significant way, led by the pharmaceutical industry,” Bannon said. “If we put together a unity ticket of Trump and Kennedy, it would be insurmountable.”
On April 28, Bannon criticized an ABC News segment that fact-checked Kennedy, claiming the network thought “it’s too dangerous to have Bobby Kennedy up there answering a question” and further framing him as a persecuted truth-teller. Bannon went on to praise a separate interview Kennedy did on Fox News for “laying down about how you deconstruct the administrative state.”
Bannon’s guest, the right-wing pundit Darren Beattie, agreed that Kennedy was “introducing a really important topic into the broader sort of campaign discourse, and that is the COVID issue, that is the vaccine issue, that’s the lockdown issue.”
Beattie then suggested Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was another example of a politician who “flanked the system,” but claimed that Kennedy is “so superior to Bernie.”
“It’s not even close,” Bannon agreed.
The same day, Bannon argued that the Republican National Committee should act more like the DNC and rule out primary debates, as is customary for the party that holds the presidency. To support his argument, Bannon claimed Kennedy was polling better than Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and so the RNC should follow the DNC’s lead and shut down the main challenger to Trump.
Bannon continued praising Kennedy throughout May. Early in the month, he repeatedly referred to Kennedy’s campaign as a “crusade,” a description he’d used before. On May 9, Bannon interviewed Rasmussen’s Mark Mitchell to discuss a poll his organization had just released that showed 54% of likely U.S. voters held a favorable view of Kennedy, but also that a majority of Democrats would support Biden in the primary. Bannon described Kennedy as “kind of surging,” which Mitchell agreed was “not a bad first showing.”
The story has been the same in June.
“The only two people in a presidential race who are saying anything important and doing anything important is Donald J. Trump, and he’s putting these policy things out every day, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,” Bannon said on June 7. “This Twitter Space he did with Elon Musk the other day — the New York Times headline the next morning was ‘Kennedy promotes right-wing ideas and misinformation.’ And what was he talking about? The exact things we talk about on War Room every day.”
The next day, Bannon doubled down on his claim that Trump and Kennedy are the only relevant presidential candidates.
“There are two people here — President Trump in his policy statements and his rallies and his movement, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — that are actually speaking in a modern nomenclature of politics and what the issues are of the country,” Bannon said. “I realize Bobby Kennedy Jr. is not everybody’s cup of tea. I understand that he doesn’t have policies on life and guns that are absolutely perfect and aligned with MAGA, there’s no doubt about that, but he’s talking about the central issues facing the country, as Donald Trump is, and that’s why the other stuff is irrelevant.”
On June 19, Bannon interviewed conservative radio show host John Fredericks, another fan of Kennedy. Fredericks said Kennedy had “taken on the entire Democrat, warmonger, pro-vax, government top-down, tell-you-what-to-do, tell-you-what-to-eat — he’s taken them on lock stock and barrel.”
Fredericks then framed Kennedy — who he praised as being “very sane” — as having potential bipartisan appeal due to his purported support from Democrats who had a negative view of federal investigations into Trump.
“What Robert F. Kennedy has done in taking on the vax establishment, big government, is — he is a very sane, noted alternative to what is going on out there,” Fredericks said.
Like Beattie and Bannon, Fredericks also favorably compared Kennedy to Sanders.
“What RFK is doing — he’s bridging the gap of the populist movement of people that are on the left, and he’s not a socialist like Bernie Sanders, right? He’s not a communist.” Fredericks said. “The guy is a moderate Democrat. Pro-business guy.”
On June 21, Bannon braided together several of the strands that jointly animate Trump and Kennedy supporters, flowing seamlessly from anti-vaccine paranoia to a coded embrace of QAnon messaging by praising a new QAnon-aligned film about child trafficking called Sound of Freedom. (The film’s lead actor, Jim Caviezel, recently openly embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory during an interview on War Room.)
Bannon claimed that the country is going through a “massive realignment of American politics” spurred by Trump, that has destroyed the partisan categories of Republican and Democrat. He proceeded to introduce and then play a lengthy clip of NBC misinformation reporter Brandy Zadrozny on All In with Chris Hayes debunking various false claims Kennedy had made.
“This is about this realignment — and guess what it’s about, it’s what I’ve been talking about — the anti-vax, the vaccine-hesitant, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian,” Bannon said. “You say, ‘Well, why would you be anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian?’”
“Go watch the film Sound of Freedom,” Bannon continued, before referencing wildly disingenuous claims that the Biden administration is aiding a global child trafficking ring. “It’s about DHS officers that are on this professionally, your tax dollars, and they’re pulled off it when it gets to be too uncomfortable to people in power.”
After playing the segment, Bannon again addressed his audience.
“This is not about a spoiler candidate, that’s what they’re trying to throw out,” he said, later adding, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign is getting traction for one reason: He’s speaking truth to power.”
Charlatans will reap what they sow
Bannon can’t make Kennedy the Democratic nominee. Whether War Room’s constant cheerleading will have a lasting effect on the Democratic electorate remains to be seen. What is already clear, though, is that Bannon and Kennedy are engaged in a mutually beneficial joint “crusade” – to borrow Bannon’s term — to spread misinformation about vaccines and other effective public health measures. They’re both also helping to further entrench QAnon-style conspiracy theories into mainstream discourse. Both efforts present themselves as being in the best interests of children, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Kennedy’s primary run will almost certainly convince some number of people to reject vaccines. Bannon is playing a key role in promoting that campaign. Both will share culpability when the country reaps the inevitable consequences of the chaos they are sowing.