Breitbart News has a target in its crosshairs following the departure of former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn from the White House in a cascade of scandal over his contacts with the Russian government: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Targeting Priebus, who leads the faction of Trump aides that is composed of experienced establishment political hands, is really just a stand-in for a larger conflict about the future of Trumpism in the White House. Breitbart News is treating Flynn’s ouster as the first salvo in a war against those in the administration they deem insufficiently loyal to Trump. Backing up Breitbart are legions of other Trump loyalists in the right-wing media sphere. And their angry reaction to Flynn’s exit signals the unpopularity of the move with a vocal segment of Trump’s base.
Trump loyalists — meaning the true believers who supported Trump from the start, not Republican politicos who became attached later on — have been privately musing about getting rid of Priebus. Now, that musing is going public. “I think this is Pearl Harbor for the true Trump supporters, the Trump loyalists,” said Roger Stone, a former Trump campaign adviser and longtime Republican operative who still has a relationship with Trump. “I believe Reince Priebus moved on General Flynn and I think he intends to move on Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller next. He is not serving the president well. The people he hired are loyal to the Republican National Committee, not the President of the United States.”
At Breitbart, the right-wing outlet that until recently was run by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and has served as a loyal defender of Trumpism, the narrative was set early with a piece by editor-at-large Joel Pollak questioning the role of U.S. intelligence agencies in the leaks that brought down Flynn. Pollak and other Trump defenders are arguing that the real story is the fact of the leaks themselves, and not what was leaked.
“The fourth and most worrying explanation is that the government was not merely monitoring the communications of Russian diplomats, but of the Trump transition team itself,” Pollak wrote. “The fact that the contents of Flynn’s phone conversation—highly sensitive intelligence—were leaked to the media suggests that someone with access to that information also has a political axe to grind.”
(Pollak’s argument mirror’s Trump’s own message, delivered in a tweet on Tuesday morning: “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?”)
Tuesday morning, Breitbart’s Washington Political Editor Matt Boyle—an ardent Trump supporter and known ally of Bannon—came out with a splashy scoop: “As Flynn Resigns, Priebus Future In Doubt As Trump Allies Circulate List of Alternate Chief of Staff Candidates. “
Boyle’s story cites “sources close to the president” and “multiple sources close to President Trump with internal knowledge of White House operations” blaming Priebus for not moving cabinet confirmations along quickly enough and for the “botched rollout” of Trump’s controversial executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The order and subsequent fallout threw into stark relief the contrast between the Bannon-esque and more traditional wings of the White House; the staffer who bore most of the blame publicly was Stephen Miller, the White House senior policy adviser who played a key role in the travel ban and who has close relationships with Breitbart reporters dating back to the effort to scuttle the Senate Gang of 8 immigration reform bill in 2013.
The story accuses Priebus of knowing about anti-Trump “sleeper cells” hidden throughout the government.
“White House and other government sources say there are as many as 50 of them throughout government, and Priebus has full knowledge of their whereabouts, who they are, and what potential for damage they may cause,” Boyle reported. “He is not doing anything about it, these sources add.”
Purging “sleeper cells” of non-political government employees would be illegal, according to Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, and former Obama White House ethics czar Norm Eisen.
It’s “not legal to fire them if they have civil service jobs,” Painter said in an email. “Plenty of Bush people got those jobs in the Obama administration and they were very helpful. This ‘sleeper cell’ rhetoric is highly offensive in treating people of the other political party like terrorists.”
“You are not permitted to fire government employees willy nilly just because Breitbart accuses them of being sleeper cell members,” Eisen said in an email. “If some are civil servants, they are entitled to the full protection of civil service law.”
The story raised immediate speculation that either Bannon or Miller had planted it.
“Can you imagine Boyle running this against Bannon's wishes? No chance,” said one prominent Washington Republican with knowledge of the White House, who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons. “He was the editor of Breitbart about fifteen minutes ago. This is just so brazen. How's he going to sit through meetings from Reince?”
Boyle did not respond to a request for comment.
But whether Bannon was actually involved is unclear. A source close to Bannon who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly pushed back on this idea, arguing that there is no reason to believe Bannon wants Priebus pushed out right now; Priebus’s knowledge of Washington and of Capitol Hill remains useful to enacting Bannon’s agenda. And The New York Times reported that it was actually Bannon who asked Flynn to resign over the weekend.
A senior White House official called the Breitbart story “false in every single possible respect” and dismissed the idea that Miller or Bannon had been behind it.
Another White House official speaking on condition of anonymity also said the Breitbart story was “completely false” and that “whoever placed it has no knowledge of the inner workings of the administration.”
“I can also tell you that Bannon and Miller are very unhappy with the story and consider it an attack on a close friend,” the official said.
And Bannon himself called the story “absurd” in an email.
Bannon and Priebus have made a show of closeness recently, even giving a joint interview to New York magazine last week in which they professed to fall asleep on the phone with each other and joked about giving each other back rubs.
But the effort hasn’t tamped down anti-Priebus ardor in what BuzzFeed News’s Charlie Warzel has dubbed the “New Media Upside Down”: the constellation of pro-Trump fringe (or not so fringe) right-wing media personalities and organizations that have grown increasingly powerful. Flynn’s affinity for Russia and trafficking in conspiracy theories have endeared him to many in this group.
Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., reactivated his Twitter account the morning after Flynn’s firing. He had deleted it after calling the travel ban a “Muslim ban” last month. Flynn Jr., who was ejected from the transition team for his role in spreading misinformation like the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, has spent the day amplifying alt-right and alt-right-adjacent Twitter accounts, including Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson, who wrote that “The resignation of General Flynn is part of an ongoing effort by the military-industrial complex to sabotage President Trump and re-assert control over foreign policy.”
Wikileaks has also weighed in, the sometime pro-leak organization tweeting “Trump's National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigns after destabilization campaign by US spies, Democrats, press.”
“The base was not happy when [Priebus] was appointed chief of staff,” said Mike Cernovich, a “new right” blogger and Twitter personality.“We knew he'd work hard to sabotage Trump's agenda.”
Asked if the incident has made him lose confidence in Trump, Cernovich said “Not going to give a drama kill quote like that” but “My loyalty has always been towards my fellow Americans and the broader movement––not Trump personally. He is the face of the movement but is help up by it as well. I do not work for him or the GOP and will criticize his decisions when appropriate.”