Russiagate Has Reached Steve Bannon’s Doorstep

The leaks about the FBI investigation as well as the subsequent Mueller probe haven’t typically mentioned Trump’s campaign manager who went on to become his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Graphics attempting to summarize all of the various meetings with Russians haven’t included his face. Keep in mind that Bannon came into the campaign to replace the man who is often viewed as the center of the campaign’s connection to Russia, Paul Manafort.

But with all of the news about Cambridge Analytica over the last week, Russiagate has finally reached Bannon’s doorstep. According to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the company was started in 2014 when Bannon convinced billionaire Robert Mercer to invest millions of dollars in its creation. As I mentioned previously, it is hard to believe that it is nothing more than a coincidence that almost immediately they contracted with Aleksandr Kogan, who happened to also be working with St. Petersburg University on a similar project, in order to steal Facebook data.

We also learned from Wylie that as early as 2014, Cambridge Analytica was testing words and phrases that went on to be mantras in the Trump campaign, like “drain the swamp” and “deep state.” This was all going on over a year before Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, but several years after Bannon met Trump in 2011. Soon after that meeting, the head of Breitbart News decided that “Trump might be ‘the one’ who could shake up American politics.”

Last night the Washington Post reported some additional information they received from Christopher Wylie.

Conservative strategist Stephen K. Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s early efforts to collect troves of Facebook data as part of an ambitious program to build detailed profiles of millions of American voters, a former employee of the data-science firm said Tuesday…

In an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post at his lawyer’s London office, Wylie said that Bannon — while he was a top executive at Cambridge Analytica and head of Breitbart News — was deeply involved in the company’s strategy and approved spending nearly $1 million to acquire data, including Facebook profiles, in 2014.

“We had to get Bannon to approve everything at this point. Bannon was Alexander Nix’s boss,” said Wylie, who was Cambridge Analytica’s research director. “Alexander Nix didn’t have the authority to spend that much money without approval.”

However, the Washington Post might have buried the lede further down in the article. On the topic of the messages being tested, they wrote this:

The firm also tested views of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The only foreign thing we tested was Putin,” he said. “It turns out, there’s a lot of Americans who really like this idea of a really strong authoritarian leader and people were quite defensive in focus groups of Putin’s invasion of Crimea.”

Why in hell would Bannon be interested in what Americans thought of Vladimir Putin while he was testing messages like “drain the swamp” for a political campaign? If he wanted to find out what voters thought about authoritarian leaders, that is cause for concern in and of itself. But there is a whole host of potential authoritarians to chose from, why limit it to Putin?

We also know that during the presidential campaign, Cambridge Analytica reached out to the organization Martin once described as a Russian front organization.

Alexander Nix, who heads a controversial data-analytics firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign, wrote in an email last year that he reached out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about Hillary Clinton’s missing 33,000 emails.

On Wednesday, Assange confirmed that such an exchange took place.

That happened about the same time as this:

[A]t a press conference on July 27, 2016, while the Democratic National Convention was underway, Trump—then the Republican nominee—said he hoped the Kremlin would recover those emails.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said.

If Nix had to get Bannon’s approval for everything, it is likely that his attempt to partner with WikiLeaks was not an exception.

Finally, if Cambridge Analytica played any role in helping Russia target its disinformation campaign to specific American voters, it is clear from all we now know about the company that the weight of that conspiracy would fall directly on Steve Bannon’s shoulders.

About a month ago, Bannon met with Mueller’s investigators for some 20 hours over the course of two days. We don’t know what he was asked about, but most of the reporting focused on queries about Trump’s firing of Comey as well as meetings between the Russian ambassador and Michael Flynn. Given the tight ship Mueller is running, that information is more likely to have come from Bannon than the special counsel. But even if his role with Cambridge Analytica didn’t come up at the time, I’m sure it will eventually.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.