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'The Brink' Director On Steve Bannon Indictment

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk now about a former member of President Trump's inner circle who now finds himself under indictment. We're talking about Steve Bannon, a former top strategist in President Trump's 2016 campaign and in the White House. On Thursday, federal prosecutors in New York charged Bannon with fraud, alleging that he and three others funneled money to themselves that they were supposedly raising through crowdsourcing to build a portion of Trump's southern border wall. Bannon denies the charges.

We wanted to hear more about this formerly prominent figure in Trump's orbit and the latest of his close associates to face criminal charges, so we called Alison Klayman. She directed the 2019 documentary "The Brink," which followed Bannon after he was fired from the White House in 2017 and worked to influence the 2018 midterms in the U.S. and link far-right populists in Europe.

Alison Klayman, thanks so much for being with us.

ALISON KLAYMAN: So nice to be here. Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So, first, start back where the film starts. Would you just remind us why Bannon was fired from the White House when his hardline views on immigration were so central to Trump's campaign to begin with?

KLAYMAN: Yeah. Bannon left the White House essentially in the fallout after the Charlottesville far-right demonstrations and the death of Heather Heyer. His exit was swift in the wake of Charlottesville. And at the time, Trump still, you know, considered him in his good graces. It was only later, around the time that Michael Wolff's book came out, and quotes that Bannon said that were disparaging to Trump and his family were published, that Trump gave him the moniker Sloppy Steve. And this more public rift was on everyone's radar.

MARTIN: What was your reaction when you heard that he had been indicted for fraud?

KLAYMAN: When I heard he had been indicted for fraud, there's some element of it being a little surprising, right? He's a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who, you know, continues to surround himself with friends from that time, including the former president of Goldman Sachs, John Thornton. Seems like a guy who would know how to be on the right side of avoiding criminal activity, criminal charges in terms of handling money.

But it's sort of not surprising because the time that I spent with Bannon over, you know, 13 months after he left the White House, I saw the kind of people he surrounded himself with. And, you know, there's a fairly incompetent and mediocre level to some of his immediate colleagues and people he was aligning himself with. And in that respect, the sort of sloppiness that is described in the indictment doesn't come as a surprise.

MARTIN: Did the indictment shed light on anything that you wondered about while you were making the film or any themes that emerged while you were making the film?

KLAYMAN: I mean, the indictment fit right in with, I think, both my sort of operating set of questions and observations of Bannon. You know, I couldn't help but see him as someone who, you know, was very self-interested and, you know, was a great talker. But words like con man and grifter came to mind to describe him.

MARTIN: And why is that?

KLAYMAN: I think it really does come down to the hypocrisy of what he says he stands for and how he actually operates. I think he knows how to speak on different registers. Remember, he went to Harvard Business School. He has a lot of good relationships with people in the media. And I'm not just talking about Fox News. I mean, he really cultivates reporters. I mean, he knows how to talk how he needs to talk and be how he needs to be in certain circles.

And, you know, when he goes into rooms, he can get really folksy, and he's talking about the little guy, even if he just flew on a private jet to get there. And, you know, I could just see that he was a really good salesman.

MARTIN: This isn't an original thought, but you spoke of the contrast of his lifestyle with his stated belief in economic populism. None of those policies, by the way, seem to have really manifested themselves during the Trump administration.

But for Bannon to be involved with basically dunning American citizens or inviting American citizens to send their money to build this wall - I mean, I understand that this started after you had finished your filming with him, but did you ever have a chance to talk to him about that? Like, the - that seems completely averse to the whole point of the project.

KLAYMAN: I mean, to be in the world of Bannon and sort of that whole milieu is like being through the looking glass. In a way, these kinds of contradictions - there's always an explanation, an answer, because it's also an incredibly conspiracy theory-believing world. And so you can always explain things as, oh, they're just out to get me. And so, you know, it's - there's a little bit of Teflon when it comes to these activities because yeah, as you describe it, of course. How can you square that?

But to confront him with the contradiction or the hypocrisy - you know, it's a futile effort. I don't know what - you know, I think we have to trust our eyes and our own sense of judgment when we see things that are completely contradictory or seem, you know, completely immoral, and it's - you know, not necessarily expect them to have a great explanation for it.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, the president has used his pardon power to help his friends and people that he cares about. You know, he pardoned sheriff Joe Arpaio. He commuted Roger Stone's sentence. Do you have any sense of what their relationship is now? Is it such that you think that Trump would be interested in pardoning him? Or do you think that Bannon thinks that he would?

KLAYMAN: I think he's been messaging his loyalty. Whether or not that's how he truly feels or whether or not that's how he truly acts, he's been messaging his loyalty for the last couple years. But I don't know if that's going to guarantee him a pardon in - because I think that he still is a figure viewed differently by Trump than, you know, a Roger Stone. I think that Bannon is not really a great No. 2, and I think Trump knows that.

MARTIN: Alison Klayman is the filmmaker behind "The Brink." It's a documentary about Steve Bannon which was released in 2019 and is streaming on Hulu and is available now on all platforms.

Alison Klayman, thanks so much for talking to us.

KLAYMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "FAREWELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.