When Fareed Zakaria announced via Twitter on Thursday night, “CNN Exclusive – A Fareed Zakaria Special: The Steve Bannon Interview,” the hype machine went into full gear. CNN began teasing excerpts of the interview, to air the following night in primetime for an entire hour, promising Bannon’s perspective on everything from Donald Trump to Robert Mueller to the midterm elections.
My first thought was, “This must be one explosive interview.” Why else would CNN devote an entire hour to an interview with someone who has been in exile abroad since his very public break with both the president and Breitbart News in January? Would Bannon turn on Trump? Would he renew his crusade against the Washington political establishment? Did he have a new venture to announce that would thrust him back into the center of the national political conversation?
I watched the interview from the CNN bureau in Washington. I had been booked to appear on “CNN Tonight” with Don Lemon after the Bannon interview aired to give reaction and analysis. The more I watched, the more agitated I became. This wasn’t an interview, it was an infomercial.
Bannon declared that the president of the United States is also the country’s “chief law enforcement officer” and should consider firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He praised Trump as “great,” and while he “respectfully” disagreed with the president on his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he heaped effusive praise on his former boss’ approach to trade and immigration. Bannon even suggested that Trump would shut down the government in the fall over funding for the border wall.
One thing was clear, Bannon wasn’t going to break with Trump. This interview had one purpose for an audience of one. It’s an obvious strategy. Trump hate-watches CNN but also craves acceptance from the “mainstream media.” Trump’s entire decision-making process often seems solely based on what he watches on television. Trump believes there are not enough voices on cable TV defending him. Steve Bannon appears on “fake news” CNN, knowing Trump is watching, and offers a spirited defense of his presidency, all the while hoping the appearance helps him return to Trump’s good graces.
It makes a lot of sense if you’re Steve Bannon. It makes zero sense for CNN.
The entire time I’m watching this infomercial, I’m wondering, “Why the hell is CNN giving Steve Bannon an hour to try and rehabilitate his relationship with Donald Trump?” It makes even less sense than repeatedly inviting Kellyanne Conway on air to give blatantly misleading or meaningless explanations of administration policy (most of us call them lies). The reality is, reporters and producers play a tangible role in elevating and empowering different voices to shape the national discourse in this country. How the media chooses to wield that power is incredibly consequential.
If there is a path for Bannon to return to prominence and influence, it runs through the media. Past experience and the ascension of Donald Trump makes Bannon believe the media will do his work for him. He doesn’t believe that any reporter or booking producer would ever turn down a quote or interview opportunity with him.
I always felt that the worst thing you could do to Steve Bannon and Donald Trump is to not talk about them. To not give them additional oxygen to fuel their venom. Silence is their true fear. For all the bluster about “fake news” and media bias, Bannon and Trump would be nothing without them. Now Bannon is relying on the media to try and give him yet another lease on life. The only question is, will the media be a willing accomplice to Bannon’s rehabilitation effort?
If what we saw on CNN Friday night is any indication, the answer is clearly a resounding yes.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist. He is a former spokesman and senior adviser for former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) and Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella