Speaking to an anti-immigrant organization on Saturday, former presidential adviser Steve Bannon said that if Republican Ed Gillespie wins Virginia’s gubernatorial race on Tuesday, it will be “because of the underlying message of Corey Stewart,” the Confederate-memorial-loving, fiercely anti-immigrant Prince William County supervisor who lost his bid for the state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination this year.
“If Gillespie, who’s a Bush guy, if he wins—and I do believe that he’s going to win, he’s going to pull this thing out—it’s because of the underlying message of Corey Stewart and what he believes in and the Trump voters in Virginia that are going to turn out,” Bannon said.
Bannon, who is now back in his job as the head of Breitbart News, made similar remarks to The Washington Post on Sunday, saying, “Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win. It was the Trump-Stewart talking points that got Gillespie close and even maybe to victory. It was embracing Trump’s agenda as personified by Corey’s platform.”
Gillespie has indeed been embracing Trump/Stewart messaging, closing out his campaign with ads about Confederate monuments and demonizing immigrants.
Bannon and Stewart both spoke at a $250-per-plate luncheon on Saturday at the annual conference of the Remembrance Project, a group that says it provides a “voice for victims killed by illegal aliens” in part by traveling the country with its “Stolen Lives Quilt,” an AIDS quilt-inspired memorial to American citizens who have been killed by undocumented immigrants. Studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, but the Remembrance Project lifts up the stories of people who have been killed by undocumented people in order to paint immigrants as a whole as sinister and dangerous. Many of the cases that the Remembrance Project highlights involve vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide.
The group, led by Texas activist Maria Espinoza, does this in part by offering a listening ear to grieving families, although some families have said that the group’s material help has come up short. After Donald Trump took the Remembrance Project on the campaign trail with him, a number of families who had been associated with it said that they felt “used, abused and exploited” by the organization.
Bannon, who said that he had helped connect Espinoza with Trump during the campaign, was more than eager to use the tragic stories to push his own political agenda in his speech to the roughly 150 people gathered at the posh Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Pointing to a portion of Espinoza’s quilt that was behind him as he spoke, Bannon said it was “like the Vietnam wall.”
He began his remarks by reading through descriptions of the deaths of a few of the loved ones of families who were at the conference, before tying their losses to his effort to prevent the Dream Act, claiming that “elites” want crimes like this to take place, and boasting of his own role in giving the activists in the room a “voice.”
“What gets me,” he said, referring to the crime victims, “is, what about their dreams? Why are illegal aliens called Dreamers and not them? And by the way, this just doesn’t happen, this isn’t some random law of the universe, this isn’t the second law of thermodynamics, this is not physics. This is an act of commission. The elites in this country, the economic, political and media elites allow this to happen because they want it to happen. The multi-national global corporations want cheap labor and the progressive left wants cheap votes. This is not a conspiracy and you are not wingnuts. This is in broad daylight. And if sites like Breitbart and someone like Donald J. Trump had not given you a voice, it would be totally hidden.”
“You know, we’re going to have to look and see how many DACA recipients cause this wall,” he said later, pointing back at the “Stolen Lives Quilt.” “They’re not all valedictorians, right?”
Bannon was one of several speakers to point to the demographic makeup of the room, which was predominantly white but contained many people of color, to claim that what he was selling was not racism. “This is about American citizenship,” he said. “Remember, economic nationalism is not about your race, your color your, ethnicity, your gender, your sexual preference. It’s about one thing. It’s about one thing: Are you a citizen of the United States of America?”
He fed the crowd excessive praise of Trump, but with a warning that the president had to stick with the Bannon agenda in order to ensure his legacy. “President Trump is, I think, on track to be one of the greatest presidents in the history of this country,” Bannon said. “If he just sticks with the plan, he’s going to be like Reagan and Lincoln, Jackson, Washington, I’ll even throw in FDR.”
Stewart, who was greeted by multiple cheers of “Corey! Corey!,” boasted of his efforts to go after undocumented immigrants in his home county and repeated his mockery of liberals for D.C.’s plan to erect a statue to long-serving mayor Marion Barry, calling Barry “the crackhead mayor.”
Former Paul Ryan challenger Paul Nehlen also spoke at the luncheon, where he jumped on the bandwagon of criticizing the visa lottery program that allowed the alleged perpetrator of the recent terrorist attack in New York to immigrate, saying that the program was “playing Russian roulette with our families.” Nehlen and his wife were listed as sponsors on the event’s program.
Jesse Lee Peterson, a conservative radio host and activist who has recently been giving air time to white nationalists delivered brief remarks. Tom Fitton of the conservative legal group Judicial Watch spoke of his group’s efforts to impose restrictive ID requirements for voting, asking, “Why on earth would you object to making sure that only citizens are voting? Because you want to be able to steal elections, if necessary, with noncitizen votes. That’s the battle we face.”
The crowd was revved up by Tommy Kilbride, a retired ICE agent and cast member on the A&E show “Manhunt,” who told them that all undocumented immigrants are criminals because “the second you step over that line [the border], that makes you a criminal.”
Kilbride said that it will be difficult for ICE, even if it gets more agents, to “get rid of” all the undocumented immigrants in the country. “But things are really looking up, heading in the right direction with Donald Trump.”
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, known for his anti-immigration extremism, also had an unsettling message. Tancredo recalled when he participated in a Republican presidential debate in 2008 and had sought to answer to every question by linking it to illegal immigration. In the end, he said, he was asked about his plan for “increasing the number of organ donors.” “But I didn’t go there,” he said. “I did not go to illegal immigration.”
The activists had heard at a closed-door meeting earlier in the week from Rep. Steve King and from Kansas secretary of state and Trump “election integrity” commissioner Kris Kobach, who told them, according to a Breitbart report, not to pay attention to studies showing lower crime rates among immigrants because “criminality is off the charts” among undocumented people.
After Saturday’s luncheon, Bannon and his admirers cleared out (he had brought Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam with him, among others), and a much smaller remaining group, including the handful of grieving families whom Espinoza had brought in, moved to separate conference room.
There, they heard from Barbara Gonzalez, a career ICE agent and the acting director of the Trump administration’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, which Espinoza has taken credit for inspiring. A few of the family members thanked Gonzalez for helping them track down information on their cases and pursue criminal convictions. There was no mention of one of the more controversial aspects of VOICE’s charter, which is to provide “quarterly reports studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.”
Gonzalez scrupulously avoided overtly political questions, but did press back against criticism of the office, saying, “The VOICE office’s intent is not to draw a comparison between crimes committed by those unlawfully present in the country and those lawfully present. I think that we’ve all heard that. People say we’re trying to draw a comparison and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Disclosure: Right Wing Watch is a project of People For the American Way, which is supporting Gillespie’s opponent, Ralph Northam.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified one attendee as Breitbart editor Matt Boyle.