Donald Trump insists new strategist Steve Bannon is not a white nationalist

President-elect says Breitbart News just 'covers' the alt-right movement - but Bannon himself has called it their 'platform'

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The Independent Online

Donald Trump has defended his appointment of alleged white nationalist Steve Bannon as chief strategist for his transition team, saying he does not recognise such descriptions of the media mogul.

As the executive chairman of Breitbart News, Mr Bannon has referred to the website as “the platform for the alt-right” and praised the group as a “populist, nationalist movement” of “right, young people, young activists”. 

Yet many see the alt-right movement as a front for white supremacists. At a conference in Washington DC at the weekend, the audience chanted “Hail Trump” and gave Nazi salutes as alt-right leader Richard Spencer described America as “a white country [that] belongs to us”.

In an interview with the New York Times, the President-elect was asked about the concerns regarding Mr Bannon, in particular the suggestion that he is “described by some as racist and anti-semitic”.

Mr Bannon himself said this week that he is not a white nationalist. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, he said: "I'm an economic nationalist. I am an America first guy... I've never been a supporter of ethno-nationalism."

Mr Trump said he had known the executive “for a long time”, and that he wouldn’t have considered hiring him “if I thought he was a racist, or alt-right, or any of the… the terms we can use”.

Though Mr Bannon’s role is one of the most high profile in the transition team, Mr Trump said ultimately any decisions are his own.

“And if he said something to me that, in terms of his views, or that I thought were inappropriate or bad, number one I wouldn’t do anything, and number two, he would have to be gone,” he said.

“But I know many people that know him, and in fact, he’s actually getting some very good press from a lot of the people that know him, and people that are on the left.”

Of the reaction since his appointment, Mr Trump said it was “very hard on him”. “I think he’s having a hard time with it. Because it’s not him. It’s not him.”

Reince Priebus, Mr Trump’s pick for chief of staff, added: “We have never experienced a single episode of any of those accusations. It’s been the total opposite.”

Critics point to the direction Breitbart News has taken since Mr Bannon took over in 2012. By endorsing Trump and harnessing and fuelling his support, the website saw its readership more than double in two years from October 2014.

But it has also seen prominent staffers leave in frustration, with national security correspondent Jordan Schachtel calling it “no longer a journalistic enterprise, but instead, in my opinion, something resembling an unaffiliated media Super PAC for the Trump campaign”.

In March, Breitbart published what it called “an establishment conservative’s guide to the alt-right”, in which it largely dismissed accusations of racism against the “dangerously bright” group.

But it also suggested that many “instinctively feel that once large enough and ethnically distinct enough groups are brought together, they will inevitably come to blows”, adding that “border walls are a much safer option”.

'Alt-right' movement founder urges Trump to freeze immigration for 50 years

Ben Shapiro, another former journalist, said the change under Mr Bannon had the effect of “pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist meme makers”.

Mr Trump dismissed these concerns about Breitbart in the Times interview, calling it “just a publication”, a “news organisation” which “cover things, I mean like The New York Times covers things”.

For now, the President-elect is happy to court the support of the biggest ultra-conservative publisher going, calling it “a pretty big thing” and praising Mr Bannon for achieving that. 

But there are signs the relationship may not last forever. After Mr Trump said he was dropping plans to prosecute Hillary Clinton, Breitbart News ran a headline raging at the “Broken Promises” made on the campaign trail.

As for Mr Bannon, Mr Trump’s concession to the Times was to promise that “if I thought strongly… that he was doing anything, or had any ideas that were different than the ideas that you would think, I would ask him very politely to leave”. 

He added: “But in the meantime, I think he’s been treated very unfairly.”

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