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I Go Inside the War Room with Steve Bannon & Peter Navarro at a Very MAGA Book Party So You Don't Have To
Dispatches from DC
In which I enter the War Room….
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Monday was a very unusual day. I got up early and watched the Queen’s funeral. (I am headed to D.C. tomorrow, courtesy of the British Embassy, for the service in the National Cathedral and I will write to you all about that afterwards.)
As for Monday evening: In my diary were two book parties that were not only at the same time but also in different cities. One was for The Servants of the Damned by David Enrich of the New York Times, about which I wrote last week. That was in New York, where I live, and thus was the one I was planning to go to.
The other was for Taking Back Trump’s America by Peter Navarro, China-hating economist and former Trump White House advisor. As you may know, Navarro is headed to trial in November for refusing to comply with a Congressional subpoena about January 6th, and a judge has just denied his objections, so I thought it was interesting that he’d be having a party on the rooftop of 101 Constitution Avenue, a spot above the swanky Charlie Palmer steakhouse with a stunning view of the Capitol. I wondered who was paying and who’d be going (and not going).
Over the weekend, I had read Navarro’s book, which officially came out yesterday. Now, until I’d read Navarro’s book, the winner of the award for Funniest Book about the Trump Administration was clearly—in my view, by a mile—the former Daily Beast tag team of Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng, whose account of their own hapless (and yet ingenious) reporting brought to mind the clueless methodology of Inspector Clouseau.
But, readers, they have been surpassed.
Navarro’s book is like a series of sketches out of Monty Python or Blackadder (I hope you will get the British reference). On page after page, he recounts—with frothy wit and venomous politically-incorrect nicknames—scenes in which (he claims) approximately 98 percent of his former White House colleagues double-crossed him, blocking him from getting not just his anti-China ideas to Trump but also from physically getting on planes and, at one point, even into the building! Navarro doesn’t mind telling you that, again and again, he was about as effective as the worm that comes out early and gets eaten by the bird.
In one particularly hilarious scene, Navarro describes a memo he sent to Trump in which he explained that the real reason Trump’s trade policy was being reported as disastrous by the Wall Street Journal was that Navarro’s ideas weren’t getting to Trump because they were being blocked by Gary Cohn (a globalist per Navarro), Treasury Secretary Steven “Neville Chamberlain” Mnuchin (Navarro says in the book that he “never gets tired” of using that reference to the Nazi appeaser—and that Mnuchin angrily confronted him about it), and White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (to whom Navarro devotes full pages, describing Porter in language of which Trollope might be proud: “Tall, lean, chiseled and charming, with a Reagan-esque coif and large rack of impeccably tailored pinstripe suits in a closet that held so many of his secrets”). Trump, however, never got the memo…because it was Porter’s job to put the memo on Trump’s desk, so OF COURSE Trump never received Navarro’s memo!
The book continues on in this vein in which Navarro loses battle after battle in the White House—and yet he endures beyond almost all of the people he writes about in the Trump Administration. This is quite a feat given that many Trump White House sources told me they all kept trying to get rid of Navarro (whom they viewed as a loose cannon), but Trump would never relinquish “My Peter.”
“My Peter” may not have succeeded in pushing through his anti-China policies at the throttle he’d have liked, but he has an eye for the absurd when it comes to storytelling, should he ever want to change careers.
His narrative includes nutty, comic details I’d not known, such as the fact that former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus used to stand on the diving board of the swimming pool outside the Chief of Staff’s office and bounce up and down while talking on the phone. I also didn’t know Gary Cohn had, per Navarro, a habit of putting his leg on a chair “like a dog” to get into people’s faces. Navarro revealed that Trump deliberately held meetings on the Sabbath that might sabotage his orthodox son-in-law Jared Kushner.
So, after I had finished the book—in which Navarro derides almost every former colleague and person he ever met—I wondered:
A.) Who did Navarro write this book for? (He can’t have many “friends” from the Trump era. My guess is the book is for Trump, who is carefully—and weirdly—not blamed for all the “personnel” mistakes that, in Navarro’s telling, caused both the disastrous policies and the failed 2020 campaign.)
B.) Who would go to this book party? (Navarro writes that he is now considered such a political outlier, he cannot even get on Fox News.)
So, in the name of curiosity, I went to D.C.
To my surprise, I quickly discovered that book parties for the MAGA crowd are far more commercially-oriented and marketing-savvy than the wine-and-cheese affairs with over-long toasts that the Democrats give. (Democrats, take note.)
First off, when I got to the roof of 101 Constitution Avenue, there was a tent set up with sound equipment as well as a bar. The terrace had been converted into a production stage in which Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast was being conducted live with the backdrop of Capitol Hill. Bannon—who, like Navarro, has been indicted for not responding to Congress’s subpoena and also faces New York State criminal charges, which he has denied—was not physically present. He was being beamed in from elsewhere (someone mentioned Colorado).
On the stage, however—backs to the Capitol—sat Navarro, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, (yes, you read that right), and a rotating cast list of Trump supporters who jammed the airwaves with their extreme right-wing views. Liz Harrington, Trump’s spokeswoman, explained what the polls really said—and why the conservatives were going to trounce the Dems in November. It was an echo chamber in the same way that the left has an echo chamber. But, interestingly, the people at the party didn’t really listen or even pay much attention to what was being aired. One person told me they could all see it later.
The crowd of about 60 people or so did not include any former Trump White House officials. They were, mostly, the MAGA faithful. As for reporters? I saw two Politico reporters and one producer from CBS. That was about it for the so-called “MSM.”
So who did I meet? Well, I met Jacob Wells and his sister Heather Wilson, whose apolitical organization GiveSendGo—a kind of Christian GoFundMe—has raised, via crowdsourcing, nearly $250,000 for Navarro’s legal defense, according to Weller. Weller told me they also raised $700,000 for the defense of Kyle Rittenhouse. And money for Alex Jones’ defense. Weller pointed out that his platform has also raised legal defense funds for a BLM activist who was filmed shooting a cop. “We feel that if people want to give people equal access to our justice system, that’s their right,” Wells told me.
I met a man named David Zere, who is a host on “Real America’s Voice News,” who told me that he believes Navarro is a “hero.” Zere explained passionately that he’d spent the 80s in Russia “fighting the communists” and that, basically, it’s absurd that he and the MAGA crowd are fighting the same war here—and, he told me, it is a war. A real civil war.
We were interrupted by a man named Gregory Whitestone, who pulled out his phone and showed us the cover of his book Inconvenient Facts: The Science that Al Gore Doesn’t Want You To Know—and claimed the book is number one on Amazon for the fifth year.
Now, I wondered if that could be true. I’d never heard of him or his book. Turns out, upon fact-checking, it is true—somewhat. The book is currently #1 in the subcategory of “Environmental Policy.” (I couldn’t corroborate this being a five-year phenomenon.) But this was a perfect example of something I’m not sure reporters who don’t visit the MAGA crowd would know.
Whitestone started talking to me about the CRC, a dark money organization I know all about because I am making a podcast for Audible for the Federalist Society, and, when I mentioned this, he went quiet. This was interesting because until that point, no one had really asked me who I was or what I was doing there. Ironically, I was the outlier at a party of outliers.
Navarro came over during a commercial break. “Would you be up for going on the War Room?” he asked. That is probably the most frightening question I’ve ever been asked. What would I, an independent journalist (I am a registered independent), say to the MAGA crowd on Bannon’s podcast that would not be savaged? But, I figured, I had read Navarro’s book. And we agree that the presence of Jared Kushner in Trump’s White House was dangerous for the country. So we could talk about that…
So, I sat down at the table. And Bannon, as I knew he would, asked, “Vicky Ward, from Vanity Fair and CNN—how can we have her on with her contract when Maggie Haberman says CNN won’t let her on War Room?”
Well, that was a great opportunity to plug “Vicky Ward Investigates” by explaining I am an independent journalist running my own Substack, so thank you, Steve. But it also enabled me to make a really important point that Navarro touches on toward the end of his book. In order to stop the coming “civil war”—that is coming, per not just David Zere but all my reporting on the Federalist Society for Audible, which you will hear next year—I believe it is absolutely essential that we journalists keep open minds and get to know players on both sides of the political aisle and treat them both fairly. The tribalism that currently exists (and on this Navarro is right) has got to go. If journalists don’t talk to both sides—and more importantly, listen to both sides—then why would we expect more of our gridlocked politicians?
I don’t agree with Navarro on many of his political ideas, but I do respect the civility of his invitation to his book party and the opportunity for me to get a window onto the MAGA crowd. I respect Bannon’s invitation to have me on his podcast. Anything that spurs civil dialogue is a good thing. And that’s of course where MAGA’s inspirer-in-chief falls down. Of all the adjectives one can think of to describe Trump, “civil” might not be it. (Although, interestingly, the portrait Navarro paints of Trump in his book is of a far meeker person than the public persona. The “noise” comes from the warring factions around him, Navarro says.)
After the War Room ended, the marketing campaign continued. Navarro gave a speech, which was live-streamed to GETTR—the start-up counter to Twitter begun by former Trump spokesperson Jason Miller. Brady Knox of the Washington Examiner asked the most obvious question of the night which was essentially: Given that Trump had presided over all the personnel decisions that Navarro had thought were disastrous politically and cost him the 2020 election, what made Navarro believe that Trump, if re-elected, would not make the same mistakes all over again?
Navarro, to his credit, admitted it was a great question.
I don’t think he believed his own fluffy answer—he admitted that he’d been surprised by some of the people, such as Bill Barr, that Trump had personally selected, and yet he was optimistic—but the point was, despite the fact Navarro is not able to get on Fox or in the WSJ, his messaging was getting airtime among his people. No matter what you believe politically, that was smart politics. Especially for a guy who, by his own telling, often couldn’t get face time with the president who wouldn’t fire him.