WASHINGTON — Breitbart News has made a name for itself as a smashmouth, far-right outsider deeply critical of the Washington establishment. Now the controversial conservative news outlet is trying to take steps to increase its access inside the Capitol.
On Friday afternoon, deep in the bowels of the U.S. Senate, Breitbart CEO Larry Solov petitioned the standing committee of the U.S. Senate Press Gallery — which is made up of five reporters at traditional media outlets — to grant the site permanent press passes so its reporters could move freely within the halls of Congress.
Outlets that want to gain permanent access are asked to reveal certain financial information to make sure the news organization isn’t tied to any special interest group. For the committee, the central issue of Breitbart’s application is its ownership structure and potential ties to Steve Bannon, the senior White House adviser who used to run the company.
At the meeting, Solov told committee members that Bannon resigned from Breitbart via a phone call. The committee asked Solov if Bannon could state publicly or put on letterhead that he has no affiliation with the company anymore. “If I could get Bannon to write it down, I would,” Solov said.
When asked about the financial ownership of the company, Solov asked if he could disclose that to the committee members privately (there were three reporters present documenting the on-the-record event). Solov said he wanted to reveal as little as possible about Breitbart’s financial structure, but when pressed by the committee he said that the company’s owners are himself, Susie Breitbart (the widow of founder Andrew Breitbart) and the Mercer family.
The Wall Street Journal reported in January that the Mercers, a powerful political family with deep ties to President Donald Trump, bought nearly 50% of Breitbart News for $10 million in 2011.
Solov said that Susie Breitbart has the largest percentage ownership stake in Breitbart. He declined the committee’s request to elaborate further on who in the Mercer family owns a stake.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the committee asked Solov to prepare a letter that addresses the exact date of Bannon’s resignation, makes clear that the separation was a termination and not a leave of absence, and addresses any editorial or financial relationship that Bannon might have with the company. The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
“We want to get our credentials. We think we are a qualified organization,” Solov said.
Breitbart has drawn deep criticism for providing a self-described platform for the “alt-right” and is unpopular with some Republican members for it's at times relentless criticism of Republican leadership. At the meeting, the committee said that it does not factor in the content of a media outlet to its decision, but rather its financial backing.
Receiving a permanent press pass seems like a relatively insidery, trivial process. But the move is an important one for Breitbart for a few different reasons. The first is logistical: the hard passes make it much easier to report on Congress on a daily basis (Breitbart in the past has received day or temporary passes). A reporter with a Congressional press pass is also able to use it to get into other events around town.
But the step is also a precursor to petitioning a much more recognizable body: the White House Correspondents’ Association. Breitbart is not currently in the White House pool, which rotates reporters to travel with the president at home and abroad.
If Breitbart receives approval from the Senate Press Gallery (which it is poised to do if it turns in the requested letter), it could put the outlet on a path where the WHCA would be more or less forced to consider granting its entry. The committee asked that Breitbart turn in the letter by March 20 for its next meeting.
Meanwhile, reporters from the New York Times, Politico, and CNN were barred from entering a briefing by Trump's Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Friday. Breitbart was allowed to attend, along with other mainstream outlets like ABC and CBS.
“The W.H.C.A. board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House,” the White House Correspondents' Association president Jeff Mason said in a statement.