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Steve Bannon Called 'American Prospect' To Talk About Politics


White House chief strategist Steve Bannon hardly ever talks to the media. But earlier this week, Bannon out of the blue called up Robert Kuttner. He's the co-founder of the progressive website The American Prospect. Kuttner says Bannon never asked that the phone conversation be off the record. The two spoke about Kuttner's recent column on China, but then the conversation veered into some unexpected and candid territory. At one point, Bannon called the alt-right a, quote, "collection of clowns."

And this is newsworthy because there have been calls for President Trump to fire Bannon in recent days. Bannon ran the website Breitbart News, which he, himself, called a platform for the alt-right. So he's been accused by some members of Congress of emboldening the type of hate groups that marched through Charlottesville last weekend. We are joined now by Robert Kuttner to tell us more about how this extraordinary interview came about. Thanks so much for being here, Robert.

ROBERT KUTTNER: Delighted to be here. Still stunned by all of this.

MARTIN: Right? I mean, how bizarre was this for you? I mean, did you have a pre-existing relationship with Steve Bannon? Why did he pick you?

KUTTNER: Yeah. Well, no, I had no pre-existing condition with Steve Bannon. I think - look. There are a handful of us on the kind of serious non-crazy left side of the spectrum who were critical of American trade policy. And I am critical of American trade policy because we have let American multinationals make a kind of separate peace with China where they take Chinese subsidies, they take the deal where you go produce in China but you can't produce for China's domestic market. You are coerced into transferring technology, and then you re-export to the United States. And that drains a lot of jobs and a lot of industrial prowess out of the United States.

MARTIN: And Bannon agrees with that?

KUTTNER: Yeah. This is Bannon's view. Now, you know, Bannon is a nationalist. He's an economic nationalist. He's a right-wing nationalist. He's a racial nationalist. So I'm slightly embarrassed that there is this point of convergence. So...

MARTIN: But he sees you as an ally, so he decided that you would be worth talking with.

KUTTNER: Yeah. And his strategy, which is grandiose and I think misguided, is that he's going to build a grand left-right coalition of people who are critical of trade policy. But if you think about how the White House works, does it really enhance Stephen Bannon's credibility to say, well, I've got Bob Kuttner supporting me? I wouldn't think so.

MARTIN: I want to get to some other issues that came up during the course of this conversation. You asked him about the far-right groups in Charlottesville. What did he say?

KUTTNER: Well - and I published this. I mean, I had to push him a couple of times. First, I said to him, can't you do this hard line on China without getting into bed with a really - with the racist far-right? And, you know, being Bannon - and I have to say, he began the interview by trying to ingratiate himself with me, flattering me, telling me how much he loved my stuff, which which may or may not be true.

And so, you know, he's trying to let me know that he's not such a bad guy. So he starts out by saying very nasty things about the far-right. He's says, ethnonationalism - it's losers. It's a fringe element. We got to help crush it, crush them. So this is - and then he says these guys are a collection of clowns.

MARTIN: What do you say to that? Because this is a person who he, himself, described as Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right, his news organization.

KUTTNER: Well, you know, you follow this every day. Mr. Bannon and his boss, Mr. Trump, will say anything. And that's, I think, the downfall of guys like this, that they're vulnerable to hubris. And I got a picture of a guy who's brilliant, who's tactically very agile but who's very full of himself. And that's when you make a mistake. And I think it was bizarre that he called someone like me, was even more bizarre that Stephen Bannon, who's not exactly a rookie at this, never thought to say whether this was on or off the record.

There's been a lot of speculation in the media about whether he deliberately did this because he wanted to get these views out or whether this was some kind of a - I mean, it wasn't a rookie error. This guy's one of the most savviest people - savvy people in American media. To never say this is off the record or on the record, in about two minutes into the conversation, it sort of dawned on me what I had here. And I kept praying that he would never say, Oh, Bob, this is off the record, isn't it? He never did.

MARTIN: And you didn't volunteer that, clearly, because he kept talking.

KUTTNER: Well, no, I didn't, no. And, you know, just to make the point here to your listeners, the default is if a public official is talking to a journalist and the public official doesn't say this is on background, everybody in this business knows that the default is you're on the record.

MARTIN: You're on the record. So I want to ask you. There's another quote in here. He says - kind of revealing his hand when it comes to his political strategy. "The Democrats," he said, "the longer they talk about identity politics, I got them. I want them to talk about racism every day." So clearly, he sees this as part of the larger strategy for Trump.

KUTTNER: Yeah. And the way this connects to economic nationalism - and just if I can read you the rest of that quote - he says...

MARTIN: Just briefly.

KUTTNER: ...that "the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism. We can crush the Democrats." And, of course, that's another reason you might have called me. I've said the same thing, that if Democrats don't talk about all of the ways that working class people - black and white - are just getting destroyed economically, not that Democrats shouldn't be sympathetic to the whole rainbow, but you can't just be sympathetic to the rainbow. You have to talk about pocketbook issues.

MARTIN: Lastly, I have to ask you, speculation for weeks has been that Bannon could be on the outs. There's this internal battle, especially between him and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Did Steve Bannon sound to you like a man whose job is in jeopardy?

KUTTNER: Steve Bannon sounded like a man who feels man the torpedoes full speed ahead. And I think he's going to do what he's going to do. His enemies are going to do what they're going to do. And that's who he is.

MARTIN: Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect talking with us about his interview with Steve Bannon. Thanks for your time.

KUTTNER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.