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Trump's controversial new adviser promoted conservatism even in the Navy

August 20, 2016 (Photo Credit: Danny Moloshok/AP)
Donald Trump's controversial new campaign chief comes to the job with a military resume that could become a factor in a presidential election increasingly focused on national security.

Stephen K. Bannon, a conservative business mogul best known for his work as chairman of the Breitbart News website, spent seven years in the Navy as a surface warfare officer. His military career included a stint at the Pentagon, where he served as a special assistant to the Navy's top admiral.

It remains to be seen how this could influence the Republican nominee's struggling campaign, but Bannon’s responsibilities already have risen in importance as several high-ranking staff, including campaign chairman Paul Manafort, have resigned in recent days.

Labeled by many as a firebrand and questioned by others about his tactics as he moved up in the banking and media industries, Bannon is seen as a polarizing figure even in the current realm of partisan politics. But a friend who served alongside Bannon in the Navy called him a man of solid character and intriguing ideas.

“He’s a pretty extraordinary guy,” said retired Rear Adm. Edward “Sonny” Masso, the former head of the Navy Personnel Command, who served with Bannon as a junior officer. “He’s very good at multi-tasking, and he can do amazing things. He was absolutely a good sailor and naval officer.”

The Navy could not immediately provide any details about Bannon’s military career. Officials cited undisclosed issues with the service's personnel archives.

The Trump campaign did not return phone calls seeking the particulars of Bannon’s service.

But Masso, who has known Bannon for the last 40 years, described the now divisive figure as a model sailor and driven thinker.

“To the Fleet and general public, regardless of one’s political ethos, all you need to know is that he’s one of us — a sailor,” Masso said.

The two met in Navy Surface Warfare Officer School in the late 1970s, and both served aboard the the guided-missile destroyer Paul F. Foster. In 1980, they deployed to the Persian Gulf and were there during the aborted Desert One mission to rescue American hostages being held in Iran, though neither knew the scope of what was happening at the time.

Masso said Bannon’s conservative roots were always apparent, noting that one of his fondest memories is when Bannon maneuvered to get a group of sailors into Ronald Reagan’s victory speech in November 1980.

“He decided that we should try to go the Century Plaza that night,” Masso said. “He called the campaign and identified himself as a naval officer and that he and his shipmates who’d just got back from a deployment to the Persian Gulf were really interested in attending the function.”

When campaign staffers told him no, Bannon reminded him that these men had just returned from serving on “the front lines.” Eventually, Reagan’s campaign press secretary personally set aside tickets for the men and some family members.

The pair made a rushed trip through Los Angeles traffic to grab the tickets and get back in time to take the group to the victory party.
  
“And as I recall, we stayed until very early in the morning, but of course made officer’s call a few short hours later,” Masso said.

Masso said Bannon’s landing of a coveted billet at the Pentagon would have been impressive enough for most officers, but it was clear his sights were focused elsewhere.  

“When he was on the [Naval operations] staff, he attended, at night, Georgetown University, studying international affairs, and he got a master's degree there,” Masso said. “This guy was amazing. How many people have a busy, 12-hour job at the Pentagon and then go to Georgetown University at night? To me, that says a lot about this guy.”

Bannon’s military career ended in 1983, when he left for Harvard Business School. After graduation he was hired at Goldman Sachs, and began the politically charged career for which most in the public have come to know him.

Masso said he thinks Bannon is “undisputedly qualified” to advise Trump on how to serve as commander in chief. Whether or not his latest job will last past November depends on how well he can convince voters that Trump is ready to accept that role.

Faram is a senior writer for Navy Times. Follow him on Twitter: @scribe4squids Military Times' Congressional bureau chief Leo Shane III contributed to this report.  Follow him on Twitter: @LeoShane .
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