Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., jumped back into the national news cycle Tuesday — after several quiet months — by condemning some of President-elect Donald Trump’s potential picks for top jobs.
But Paul also defended Trump’s most controversial hire so far: Steve Bannon.
Paul told Yahoo News that criticism of Trump’s decision to make the former Breitbart News CEO his chief counselor was “sour grapes by people who lost.”
“When people lose, they look for a scapegoat or they try to caricature people, and I think [Bannon is] a human being,” he said. “I think they’re making him a scapegoat and a caricature of something they want to be their enemy, and I don’t think any of it’s true.”
“I’ve met him. I don’t believe him to be a racist. I don’t believe him to be someone who characterizes people on race, gender, religion, you name it,” Paul said. “I think he ought to be judged by how well he performs.”
Paul, who unsuccessfully ran against Trump for the GOP nomination, criticized two people who are reportedly leading contenders to be Trump’s secretary of state: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. The libertarian-oriented senator said earlier Tuesday that both potential picks are too willing to wage war in the Middle East.
But it is Bannon’s hiring that has drawn some of the strongest condemnation from Democrats and even some conservatives. On Tuesday, a group of Democratic senators including Senator-elect Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., held a press conference calling on Trump to fire Bannon.
Bannon’s website, Breitbart News, has for several years been a landing page for anti-Republican establishment sentiment, and has also attracted the attention and support of many in what’s known as the “alt-right,” a loose coalition of forces that include some people with white nationalist sentiments.
“We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon said in July.
Former Breitbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro wrote this week that under Bannon, famed Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had been “pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness.” Shapiro added that Breitbart’s comments sections have become a “cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”
Glenn Beck, a former Fox News star, said on his Monday radio show that Bannon is “a terrifying man” who “wants to tear this system down and replace it with a new system.”
And in fact, the more nuanced criticisms of Bannon have been that he is so animated by a driving desire to destroy the left that he is willing to resort to any measures to do so. In other words, he wants to use radical Jacobin means for conservative ends. That’s why he has reportedly called House Speaker Paul Ryan “the enemy” and has used Breitbart to assault the Republican establishment.
Paul, however, said he was unbothered by that, and voiced some criticisms of Ryan himself.
“Politics is a rough and tumble sport, and people who think, ‘Oh, it’s so uncivil,’ need to go back and read about the fights between Jefferson and Adams. Really, it’s always been rough and tumble,” Paul said. “And to tell you the truth, I’ve often said that I think Paul Ryan’s not part of the solution, in as far as the budget. The last two times we broke the sequester, they were at the behest of Paul Ryan. He’s voted for every debt ceiling increase in the last 20 years he’s been up here.”
“So I like him personally but frankly he hasn’t been part of the solution to the debt quagmire. I think he’s been part of voting for most of the debt that’s come forward in the last 20 years,” the Kentucky senator said.
Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, has long been seen as a conservative stalwart. He proposed back in 2009 a comprehensive system to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid, arguing that the massive entitlement systems are bankrupting the country and need to be changed in order to preserve them. Ryan is one of the few Republicans to propose such controversial measures in order to tackle the U.S. national debt.
But, in part because of Breitbart’s incessant bashing of Ryan, he has come to be seen by many on the right as insufficiently conservative or not stridently enough opposed to President Obama’s policies.
Ryan on Tuesday overlooked the many insults and criticisms from Bannon and Breitbart, and called Trump’s adviser “a person who helped [Trump] win an incredible victory.”