August 18, 2017

Call it “Mooch II” (absent the profanity).

Out of the blue, journalist-academic Robert Kuttner got a surprise call from Steve Bannon, the controversial White House strategist associated with the Breitbart News operation he once ran and diehard nationalist views that he can’t appear to escape.

Some of the comments were instantly newsworthy. Some infuriated folks in the West Wing. And, now, Bannon is gone.

Sound familiar?

This unexpected telephonic outreach was rather more policy driven, even cerebral, than that experienced by New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza when he picked up his phone one evening at home and was the recipient of an X-rated screed from Anthony Scaramucci. That, of course, resulted in Scaramucci’s exit after a 10-day tour as White House communications director, but did assure Scaramucci’s instant ascension into permanent celebrity status (replete with an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show).

The interview, which Bannon says he did not know was on the record, drew massive interest shortly after it was published, garnering follow-up articles in The New York Times, Axios and Vanity Fair, among others. After the interview was published, Bannon credited himself for “changing the [media] narrative” away from President Trump in the wake of his divisive remarks about the unrest in Charlottesville. It was a major coup for both Kuttner and The American Prospect, an influential liberal journal of politics and culture.

Kuttner is the very sharp co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect who had written a HuffPost piece on the tricky relationship between North Korea and China that had caught Bannon’s eye (it also would run on American Prospect’s site). He also teaches at Brandeis University in Boston.

In making a case as to why China doesn’t have any great interest in sharply restraining North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Kuttner wrote, “The problem here is that China holds most of the cards. If China does manage to restrain Kim from his threatened missile launch, Trump would be obliged as part of the deal to indulge China’s harmful trade practices, backing off from any retaliation. Yet the United States would be no better off over the long term with Kim, who will keep expanding his nuclear arsenal.”

“The situation calls for well-informed and nuanced use of the diplomatic and military resources at America’s disposal—the opposite of Trump’s impulsive bombast. Even if we do everything right, there is still a growing risk of a North Korean nuclear arsenal soon capable of reaching mainland America.”

The piece caught Bannon’s interest, even if agreeing with parts through an ideological lens quite different than Kuttner’s. But Bannon clearly diverges from some elements in the West Wing when it comes to saber rattling with North Korea. He thinks it’s got the potential for a giant mess. So an aide contacted Kuttner and set up a call.

What were relevant circumstances for the Bannon call? Was it your piece on China? And where were you when he reached you?

He read my column on China, Korea and trade, which he liked. He had an assistant email me to set up a meeting at the White House. I phoned and said I was on vacation and suggested a phone call instead. Bannon called about an hour later.

Had you spoken to him before? Whether or not, what was your general view of him going in and general view after the call?

I’d never spoken with him. I came away thinking that he’s a smart guy, with a grand vision that is partly astute and partly crazy, that he’s given to bravado, recklessness, and opportunism, rather like Trump. Some of his blarney dissing the alt right, that he helped wield into a political force, was totally to impress me. He obviously doesn’t believe it.

Any advice for journalists who get a call like that, very much unexpected?

Take the call and if the caller is so foolish as not to put it on background (assuming it’s not a friendly source), maximize the moment.

I see that the magazine quickly promoted the piece and sought donations. How has that gone? Is it too early for any decent numbers?

It’s gotten about 650,000 page views on our site. We have yet to seriously strategize about how to make strategic use of his in our fundraising. Our publisher sent out a quick email to our list. But larger donors and prospective are always asking about “impact.” This is sure impact.

If you missed it, here is “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant” from American Prospect.

Now, of course, an editor might fiddle with the headline, perhaps changing it to “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant—and Jobless.”

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
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