Armstrong Williams doesn’t see why there’s so much fuss about Steve Bannon.
On this week’s episode of the “Majority Minority” podcast, Williams, an influential African-American conservative Republican, calls Bannon, President Donald Trump’s controversial and embattled chief strategist, a great guy who encouraged Trump to reach out to African-American voters during last year’s presidential campaign.
“I’ve known Steve Bannon for ages. He’s like a brother,” Williams tells podcast co-hosts Franco Ordoñez and William Douglas. “I know he cares about the issues of race and that we’re not divided.”
Others see a different Bannon: a divisive figure whose fiery right-wing rhetoric and stewardship of the ultra-conservative Breitbart News stoked white nationalist and anti-Semitic elements who embraced Trump’s campaign and his presidency.
“There’s nothing factual that shows Steve Bannon is a bigot,” Williams says. “He may be way to the right, yes, but is he a racist and bigot? No, he’s not.”
Williams is a key figure in Republican/conservative circles, both revered and reviled. He began his political career as an aide in the 1980s to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., a staunch segregationist who amended his views on race later in life.
“I remember when I met him, I asked him whether he was a racist,” Williams recalls. “He chuckled; he never answered me. He just gave me an opportunity to work for him.”
A Marion, South Carolina, native, Williams, 55, is a longtime friend, adviser and confidant of former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who’s now Trump’s housing secretary. Williams worked for Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and defended Thomas during his Supreme Court nomination hearing in 1991 against law professor Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations.
Williams took the lessons Thurmond taught him about political power and merged them with his late father’s passion for entrepreneurship. He’s forged a one-man media empire, and is the largest African-American television station owner, with seven. Williams writes a conservative column, hosts a syndicated television show and does a daily satellite radio talk show.
“He is someone that a lot of people put up there with some of the white conservatives, particularly in media, who have owned the day – Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, etc.,” says Michael Steele, who served as the Republican National Committee’s first African-American chairman. “He is someone who has quietly established a presence that people have come to respect, admire and pay attention to.”
He’s also been a target for controversy. Williams settled a sexual harassment suit in December brought by a former salesman at a Washington-area clothing store.
The Education Department paid Williams $240,000 to promote then-President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education policy on his television show and push the initiative to other African-American journalists in 2004. He later apologized for the incident.
Some senior officials in Carson’s presidential campaign said they had often clashed with Williams, who had no official campaign role but was omnipresent.
“He wanted no official responsibility for anything, but he wanted the ability to inject himself wherever he saw fit,” says Barry Bennett, who resigned as Carson’s campaign manager in December 2015, in part because of conflicts with Williams. “Ben has a weak spot for Armstrong. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if he knows what it is. It’s a complex relationship.”
In the podcast episode, Williams:
▪ Discusses his relationship with Carson and how the retired neurosurgeon will do as housing and urban development secretary.
▪ Talks about his love for Thurmond, a longtime segregationist whom he regards as a grandfather figure.
▪ Explains why he’s a third-generation Republican and how some members of his family, particularly his sisters, split with him on his support for Trump.
▪ Says that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who is serving consecutive life sentences for killing nine people inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, should be executed and he’d like to “pull the lever” himself. Williams’ cousin, South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was killed in the June 2015 attack.