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Evaluating Steve Bannon's Influence On Trump's Speech To Congress


President Trump's speech to Congress last night did something that he rarely has done. He acknowledged American history.


In campaign speeches, the president said relatively little about the past, except that he felt Americans were tougher in the old days that he vowed to bring back.

INSKEEP: Last night in the House Chamber, performing a ritual that many presidents have performed before, the president said the country was nearing its 250th birthday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice in unbroken chain all the way down to the present. That torch is now in our hands, and we will use it to light up the world.

INSKEEP: Light up the world, he said, although he still talks of the United States and its place in the world rather differently than some other presidents. Let's talk about this starting with NPR's Scott Detrow who watched the speech last night and covered the president's campaign in 2016.

Hi, Scott.


INSKEEP: Very different tone than the inaugural address, say. But was the substance very different?

DETROW: You know, when you take a step back, the substance wasn't that different at all from that grim view that President Trump put forward in his inaugural. He talked about massive drug problems, crime in cities, the threat of immigrants in the country illegally, a terrible economy. A lot of those things are not really reflective of the big-picture statistical picture. That was all still there. The difference was a much more measured tone and kind of an optimistic sheen on the end, saying and this is how we can work together to fix this.

INSKEEP: And maybe his signature issue, immigration, is an example of that. He said he was open to some kind of immigration reform but still spoke rather grimly about what immigrants were doing to American citizens.

DETROW: And talked about something that really concerned Democrats in the room, putting together a new government agency that's going to shine a light on crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally.

INSKEEP: OK. So NPR's Scott Detrow, stay with us.

We talked about the president's discussion of America's place in the world. Let's listen to a little bit of what he had to say.


TRUMP: Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people. And America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.


INSKEEP: Stark statement there. And let's bring another voice into the discussion. Kurt Bardella is here. He has worked, in the past, with the president's adviser Steve Bannon. He was a consultant for Bannon's Breitbart News. He later has been critical of Bannon. He's in our studios.

Good morning.

KURT BARDELLA: Hey, good morning.

INSKEEP: So when you hear the president say my job is to represent not the world but the United States of America, is that Steve Bannon's influence there?

BARDELLA: Yeah. I mean, the entire Trump campaign and really the first month of the Trump White House has been all about America first at the expense, really, of our global standing in the global community. But it's indicative of this mindset that everything has to be centric to this country. Anything that's from outside of it, anything that comes from anywhere outside of our border is to be feared and attacked. And that's pretty much what the tone really was of the speech last night.

INSKEEP: Help me understand that because some people hear that and they say that's racism; that's xenophobia; that's nativism; that's fear of outsiders. Bannon has dismissed such labels. To the best of your understanding, where's his concern come from?

BARDELLA: Well, it's the idea - and you heard a lot of it in the tone of the speech in terms of the role that immigrants play in our country. If you were to listen the speech last night, it sounded like immigrants are criminals who come here to take your jobs, rape your women, kill your citizens and they need to be stopped. That's...

INSKEEP: None of those things was explicitly said. But you can get those, yeah.

BARDELLA: Well, that's the tone. I mean, when you're pointing out in the crowd that you have in the gallery victims of illegal immigrant crimes, you are painting a picture that this is the standard. These aren't isolated outliers or something that's not unique. They are pointing to them saying this is the model.

INSKEEP: Scott Detrow.

DETROW: And that's something that President Trump did throughout the campaign. He would regularly point to these people, saying this is someone victimized by an immigrant in the country illegally. That was a signpost of the campaign and a way to kind of frame this issue.

BARDELLA: And it's very much what you saw from Breitbart News coverage for the last few years, that fear of immigrants - that propping up any story that there was any hint of an illegal immigrant involved in a crime. That's what you saw in the pages of Breitbart News, and that's what you heard from the president last night.

INSKEEP: And let's remind people of Bannon's story. He's been an investor. He's been a filmmaker. He's been in charge of Breitbart News - was for quite some time, including the early parts of the campaign - and then became, formally, an adviser to President Trump during one of the campaign shake-ups over the summer of 2016.

He's not spoken all that often in the media himself in recent months, but he did speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington the other day. And let's hear some of that. Here's part of what Bannon said.


STEVE BANNON: I think if you look at the lines of work - I kind of break it out into three verticals or three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty, and that's your intelligence...


BANNON: ...The Defense Department, Homeland Security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism, rethinking how we're going to reconstruct the - our trade arrangements around the world. The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state.

INSKEEP: Kurt Bardella, what does he mean when he says deconstruction of the administrative state?

BARDELLA: I think that's really indicative of something he's talked about, you know, over the last few months, which is blowing up the establishment, which is taking down the pillars of the establishment he thinks are the reason why, in his world view, America isn't great right now. And when you listen to those remarks at CPAC, it mirrors the message of the entire speech from Trump last night, the idea again that national security needs to be a priority, as if it wasn't already before. We're going to, you know, plus up the Defense Department budget at the expense of everything else in our country. And that the - you know, immigrants need to be stopped, and we need to tighten up who we let into this country.

INSKEEP: Scott Detrow.

DETROW: I think that one thing that the speech was, was the first high-profile step away from the combative approach that Steve Bannon has pushed the president in all along. You know, everything is a struggle against enemies, whether they're the Democrats or whether they're us in the media. That's a lot of what Steve Bannon talked about last week at CPAC.

This was an attempt to say - we're all in this together, and I'm not stepping away from my very hard-line message but at least saying a lot of things that kind of put Democrats in the chamber in a position of having to stand and applaud because it was a big-picture thing they had to agree with, like let's have more jobs in this country.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm curious about that because the president has been so critical of media coverage that he didn't like. He's been so critical of polls that did not have the results that he wanted. But when you have a change in tone like this, does this suggest a president who's been paying attention to the media, who's been paying attention to the polls and recognized that his message was not carrying for a majority of Americans?

BARDELLA: No, I think that they were doing this to show that they could do it, that they were capable of doing it. You'll see in the next 24 hours Trump tweeting how great the coverage is. All - universally, everyone loves what I'm saying. He will quote the fake news he's been attacking saying how great he is. And then a week from now, he'll tweet something else attacking everybody, and it'll be the same old script. What we saw last night wasn't a new Trump or turning-the-page Trump. It was an isolated incident that - you know, the pattern of behavior really speaks for itself to this point.

INSKEEP: Clearly, you're critical Kurt Bardella. But did something impress you last night?



BARDELLA: No. Because the idea that somehow a president who doesn't walk into a joint session of Congress and doesn't outwardly call everyone the opposition, doesn't outwardly be hostile - why is that the standard for - oh, that's great. That's good. Congratulations. It's amazing that you're capable of exercising restraint for an hour. You're a grown man. You're the president of the United States. The fact that it's even celebrated that he conducted himself in a somewhat responsible way is ridiculous.

DETROW: But it is notable that that's so notable. I think that really says a lot about the tenor of the first 40 days of this administration.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Detrow. We're also talking with Kurt Bardella, a former consultant for Breitbart News.

Thanks for coming by our studio this morning.

BARDELLA: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.