EXCLUSIVE—Arron Banks talks to Ksenija Pavlovic Mcateer about Trump, Russia investigation, British politics and his defamation lawsuit with Carol Cadwalladr. He talks about how the media unfavorably portrayed his exoneration from all accusations.
In a navy blue Under Armor athletic outfit, with a moxie attitude and a cheerful gaze that meets the world, Arron Banks was sitting on the deck of the house he’s been renting by the bay for the past few months in New Zealand. Morning in Auckland was crisp and relaxed.
“It is quite nice out here. I've been out running every day by the orchard in the parks and it's been kind of quite chilled out actually,” Banks said fondly. “Watching the news from afar has been quite interesting. The UK's handling of the pandemic has been appalling on every possible level. I think the Government is the worst of the British civil service, unfortunately. They've done so many stupid things. It's the first time in human history that you've locked up the fit and the healthy rather than quarantine the sick. The damage to the economy has been very heavyand very poor. I am not a fan of what they've been up to so far,” Aaron Banks told me.
Back in April, I obtained the court documents revealing the details of his legal settlement with the Electoral Commission. After an exhaustive investigation by the National Crime Agency, the UK’s FBI equivalent “they found absolutely nothing.’ Yet, the lack of media coverage of Arron Banks’ exoneration was hard not to be noticed. This one-sided coverage of the controversy was a sharp contrast to the plethora of articles and TV programs that had proclaimed him “guilty before proven innocent” over the past four and a half years.
“Did anyone apologize for what they’ve said and written about you?” I asked.
“Did they, heck?” he responded. “We were on the front page of every national newspaper, nine o'clock news headlines. The front page of the Washington Post, The New York Times. And then, we get a kind of page 27 right at the back of the sort of a footnote when we got exonerated for not having done anything.”
“Do you feel a sense of satisfaction?” I inquired.
“I feel satisfied that we delivered the EU referendum result that people wanted, the one that at the same time, I felt passionately about. We've dug in deep, and we had to fight, but we never expected that when we won the Referendum, that that’s when the fight would begin. We never realized how dirty the war would become. That was a shock,” he said.
“If you look back at how these investigations started, the National Crime Agency, regurgitated all The Guardian’s stories. When you get reported to the National Crime Agency or in Trump's case, the FBI, the people start to think, well, where there is smoke, there has to be fire. The plan was really to undermine my business and to cause the maximum damage they could do to me.”
“Do you have any examples?” I asked.
“I will give you an example. It was not just the NCA. We've had investigations from all sorts of regulators, the I.C.O., the FCA. It goes on and on. So it creates a bit of a storm from which they can, then, cause more trouble. And then the trouble becomes even bigger. They organized campaigns to write to people we work with to try to scare them. It’s the corporate companies that tend to be cautious. So we've done well to survive and fight through it all. It was a very difficult time,” he revealed.
How had Banks managed to exhort such negative coverage, the “hit pieces” as he counts them one by one? “I've been fairly controversial only in what I've said and what I thought, which seems to be a crime nowadays. Liberalism is about being free to let people disagree and have different opinions. Instead of accepting free speech, and alternative views- certainly you can have an argument but still remain fairly civilized-we've reached this moment where if you don't agree with one’s view, then you know, you have to be taken down.”
In the United States, Trump is known for giving his uncensored opinions very often on very public platforms, such as Twitter. At the press conferences, Trump would often take an aggressive approach calling the press “fake news”.
“When Trump says that, he doesn't always do himself any favors, but he actually did put his finger on something. What's happening is that people are starting to tune out from mainstream media. They just don't trust them anymore, which is disappointing in a way because both on the right and the left, it leaves doors open for people to misrepresent the news. That’s dangerous,” Banks said.
Arron Banks: They all come in at it with an extreme agenda. They accused me of staging a military coup in an African country!
Recently, Banks told me that someone sent him a number of news articles written about him. “I think it reached about 18 million Google entries. The Guardian alone has written over 400 stories about me and the election campaign. One way or the other, it shows you the level of poison and the vitriol that's been heaped upon us,” he said.
“At the heights of Russia thing,” Banks continued referring to the Mueller Investigation, “Channel 4 alone did eight hit jobs on me in the space of about six weeks. The BBC Newsnight did four or five pieces. I think it all added up to 15 hit jobs, which is an unprecedented level of craziness. But then I look at the backgrounds of all the people in those newsrooms. They're all ex-Guardian, they're all from the same kind of place. And they all come in at it with an extreme agenda. They accused me of staging a military coup in an African country! I had accusations that were beyond ridiculous.”
“But you did talk about guns in those emails,” I replied.
“We own a few diamond mines and we were required from time to time to buy automatic weapons. These are quite serious guns. People try to rock the diamond pipe. How you then turn that into a news story that says I was trying to launch a military coup is phenomenal, with no evidence whatsoever. If you actually watch the Channel 4 piece at the end of the program, after 20 minutes of everyone implying that I'm a mercenary and was organizing the coup, they actually said at the end of the program, ‘Channel 4 saw no evidence of any mercenary activity’. How on earth can you get away with that as a public broadcaster?” said Banks.
While Banks intuitively knew that the Leave EU campaign would make him his fair share of political enemies, he revealed that he couldn't predict the magnitude of it. “I couldn't predict the level of viciousness,” he revealed.
“If the Electoral Commission were meant to be an independent body that oversees our political process, you would think they would be neutral and independent. When you've got the Chairman of the committee coming out and saying, ‘Brexit is a collection of eurosceptic nonsense,’ you've clearly got a problem, because that's the Chairman, right at the top of the organization being political. These are the type of people that get recruited onto these committees: the Chairman of the Arts Committee, the BBC, they're all from the same backgrounds and they all voted ‘Remain’. When I was pulled into Parliament for a hearing, one of the things I did right at the very beginning was say ‘hands up all of you that voted Remain,’ Every single Member of Parliament (MP) on the committee that was there to interrogate us was a Remain-supporting Member of the Parliament,” said Banks.
“You retaliated against MP Damian Collins, the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.” I reminded him of the time he sent out letters to the constituents of Folkestone and Hythe calling Collins a “snake in the grass”.
“I did,” he nodded in agreement, “but the Committee was like ‘when did you last beat your wife?’ We knew that they weren't gonna get very far with that, but underneath, it's quite hard. You don't want to let these people know they've got you because that's the worst thing you can do is to show any weakness at all when they're trying to destroy you and bring you down completely. It's quite difficult. It has collateral damage.”
Arron Banks: We had people following me. I've had my emails stolen. I had my phone hacked. I've had just about everything humanly possible done to me. We found out who it was that had done that and then, we did the same back and told them that they ought to be careful.
Banks has built a reputation for being tough in business, shortness of patience he came armed with to the EU’s Vote Leave Campaign. “It's very similar to what I would imagine being in a war. Things are coming at you so fast that you just don't have time to really think. You're gonna make lots of quick decisions, really fast. And then you've got media at your throat and all sorts of things happen. So shortness of patience, probably. Patience isn't my finest quality I would say,” he revealed.
Banks’ road to Brexit had all the ingredients of the John le Carré spy thriller.“Were you really followed?” I asked him, not certain if he was joking.
“Yes, it happened, absolutely. At the height of everything that was going on, we had people following me. I've had my emails stolen. I had my phone hacked. I've had just about everything humanly possible done to me. We found out who it was that had done that and then, we did the same back and told them that they ought to be careful. At the end of the day, what do you say when someone assigns someone to follow you? Or if you had every email you ever written stolen? As a journalist, if you wanted to then write stories, you could take lines out of context, and you could write whatever you like, so that's what they did.”
Arron Banks made his debut on the stage of world politics when in 2014, he announced a one million pounds donation to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). He made quite the splash when he held a press conference in front of his grandiose castle Old Down Manor in Gloucestershire. But, his honeymoon with the media was short-lived. He was quickly initiated into the world of scandalized headlines when on a Saturday afternoon, a reporter called him.
“The very first call I received from the media stuck in my head because it was Mail on Sunday, sort of ruthlessly tough. It was a journalist and he said, ‘I am calling from the Mail on Sunday. Have you ever been involved in the Killing Kittens sex club?’ There was no introduction, there was no, Hello, how are you doing? And I said, ‘Look, I have not, but it sounds really interesting. Can you send me the details?” he recalled the occasion with subversive wit. His infamously explosive relationship with the media was off to a bumpy start.
In the background, the Leave EU campaign was on the upload. Bank’s email correspondence with Dominic Cummings, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor, reveals that initially, Cummings did not see Brexit coming.
“I’ve been watching a Eurosceptic group for the last 15 to 20 years and they've gotten nowhere,” Cummings wrote in his email to Banks before the EU Referendum.
“That was a load of nonsense,” Banks told me. “If you think about the sequence of events that led us to where we got to, it was when the UK Independence Party (UKIP) started to challenge the Tories in the polls and elections. Once UKIP won the European election, the pressure started to build. Then, of course, you had David Cameron and George Osborne. Their strategy was to call it out. They thought they could win a referendum. They thought the public would support it and that it would destroy UKIP. What happened was, UKIP put on the pressure to push the referendum, and it pushed the issue to the vote,” Banks retold from his perspective.
“Where I would disagree with Dominic Cummings, is that there were two strands to it. So you've got the sort of Tory that Boris would attract the middle class and middle England, and then you had Nigel who attracted blue-collar workers, a bit like Trump. That, in the end, worked really well,” Banks disclosed vividly.
“I'm most proud of actually putting the strategy to turn our supporter base back into voting for the Tory Party and then deselect 40 or 50 conservative MPs, push the Tories towards Boris Johnson and then go on to get the 80 seat majority. That was a really powerful movement, we had recruited 25- 30,000 Tory party members in time for the 2019 leadership election of The Conservative party,” he took me behind the scenes of the Conservative leadership competition that ultimately led to Boris Johnson’s victory at the General Election.
To lead the operation on the Leave EU campaign, Banks built on his brief experience from the time he ran for election in 2010. In the eyes of the establishment, Banks was still considered an amateur -a political outsider who, on occasion, got invited to Westminster to be taught by the SW1 (a postcode for the political district in London) types on how to “handle the media.”
Arron Banks: They're meant to be professionals. And we ran rings around them.
“I was applying just basic business logic to the referendum. To me, a lot of what we were doing was just sensible business common sense. It wasn't that hard. I think one of the things not being slightly modest about it is that they're meant to be professionals. And we ran rings around them,” he said.
“You said in your book that the establishment had the SW1 skills and that you had the people power,” I reminded him of his words.
“You cover Trump, you're inside a bubble,” he expressed his view of the White House journalism. “Inside that bubble, you're talking to people that are like-minded. They don't necessarily engage people outside of the bubble. I always talked about the SW1 bubble being a very narrow kind of mindset, and that of the media within that bubble becoming even narrower. One of the proudest things I remember was on election day. I was getting a call from someone saying, we're monitoring one of our constituencies where people are voting, and the working-class people are coming out to vote for Brexit. And that made me quite proud because the voters were all ordinary and decent people, who really do not have very much at all, believing in change. That was a very powerful thing for me.”
Banks’ Eurosceptic views developed from a sense of belonging to the British national identity. “I just don't feel remotely European. I feel British. I see it as something completely different from being a European,” he revealed. “Maybe I'm patriotic but I’ve always felt that way.”
Banks owes much of his political identity to his formative years that he lived as an ex-pat. His father lived in Africa, Fiji, and South America and Banks traveled with him around the world. “We always lived a bit of a more English lifestyle than the English. We would switch on the World Service and listen to the news from home, London calling,” he recalled.
Arron Banks: As any woman knows, once the relationship goes sour, chances that you are maintaining a position that you're gonna fix it and make it better when it's just not getting better, it doesn't work.
“For me, Brexit was a chance to get involved in the biggest ever political change. You know, sometimes you need a bit of a revolution or a change in the way you're thinking about things to achieve that. No one likes change, let's face it. But actually, sometimes, you need it to go a different direction and develop. I never really understood what the pro-Remain people were scared of. Now it's almost like that they were the ones that were scared to break away from something, almost like a bad relationship, but they would say, ‘well, it's, you know, there are lots of bad things about relationships but we can make it better. Well, as any woman knows, that's not a winning proposition. Once the relationship goes sour, chances that you are maintaining a position that you're gonna fix it and make it better when it's just not getting better, it doesn't work. I think that's all I ever heard was a negative connotation, this kind of “project fear” of the dire consequences of leaving,"Banks evoked a memory of the turning point in the history of the UK and the European Union.
“When that vote happened,” he said, “everyone knew it was a one-off chance to actually do something that could make a change. It was remarkably mature in many ways because a lot of people knew that that was the one-off chance they would never get again. That's what pushed people out to come to the polling station and vote, knowing that this would never happen again.”
The Mueller investigation belongs to the annals of modern history. The investigation set the news cycle on fire the moment that Arron Banks walked through the doors of the gold elevator with Nigel Farage. This was only three days after Trump had been elected as the U.S. President in 2016.
Banks proceeded to give me insight into what his meetings with President Trump were like.
“We chatted with Trump for about three hours when he just won. Behind closed doors, Trump was Mr. Super Relaxed. He's quite funny and chilled and quite relaxed. The difference was huge,” Banks shared a surprisingly human insight into the president of the United States.
“The bottom line is you can only really see that he’s under attack. So it may not look like he's stressed though he is, having to think about the collateral he's taken. They've gone and tried to destroy him. They come at him with a baseball bat, as we see now. So I think you have to see it through the lens of what that person is going through,” Banks offered a unique perspective into Trump’s character outside of the glaring scrutiny of the media.
“Trump showed to people that change was possible,” Banks insisted. “He’s been prepared to take on the vested interests and have a go at them. I mean, they've obviously been back at him pretty hard. To change the way things are is incredibly difficult. I don't like using the word ‘deep state’ because I don't think it's organized. I think it's just the way the whole thing's structured. So it comes across like it's a deep state, but it's kind of a collective group thing,” he said. Banks clarified, “Deep state implies there's some guiding hand behind that was actually what it is, it's like punching past a city and you just can't get through it. So my view of it is that to break it, you are really gonna have to change the structures and the type of people you bring into government, ”he said.
“In UK politics you basically get rewarded for failure at every possible level. If you do a bad job, you just get shunted off so you can do an even worse job higher up somewhere else. The sort of people who want to become an MP should never be allowed to become an MP. They are not there for the right reason. That's one of the biggest problems,” he said.
Arron Banks: Steve Bannon has a very divisive worldview. He is someone who seeks trouble for the sake of trouble.
In the movie Brexit: The Uncivil War on Netflix, Banks was portrayed by actor Lee Boardman, but he told me, he was never consulted in the course of making the movie. “It was a complete load of nonsense from beginning to end. I appear there as some sort of EastEnders trader, drinking frosted Lager and spraying over Nigel on some yacht. That's the opposite of my personality. In one part they've got the meeting of Robert Mercer in the warehouse, talking about data and information and power and all the rest of it. I've never even met Robert Mercer. Nigel has, but I haven't met him.”
“But you did meet Steve Bannon?” I asked.
“I did meet Steve Bannon but I didn't think a lot of him, really. I didn't like him at all.
That’s not my type of politics. I don't like it. Steve Bannon has a very divisive worldview. I'm a much more positive person. I just think Steve Bannon is someone who seeks trouble for the sake of trouble, which I don't agree with. I agree that fights have got to be fought, but I think you don't have to do it in that kind of way that's toxic. Toxic is the right word I would use.”
Arron Banks: Within three days, the Atlantic Council wrote a piece, saying that UKIP is funded by the Russians, that our campaign is funded by the Russians, and that this is the sort of people that Trump is associated with.
How did the whole investigation into Arron Banks start? I wanted the insider’s perspective.
“The whole Russia thing started in the U.S. When we visited Trump three days after he was elected we took the picture at the golden elevator. No one in the UK could believe it. The three British politicians turned out to be the first people to meet Trump.And then essentially, within three days, the Atlantic Council wrote a piece, saying that UKIP is funded by the Russians, that our campaign is funded by the Russians, and that this is the sort of people that Trump is associated with. So they had already started this narrative of Russian money. I found that really interesting because it was so quick, and then it crossed the channel. We heard the story from three British MPs who repeated it and the story just grew from there.
Someone on CNN basically said, ‘you know, Arron Banks is a Russian actor’. And I didn't even know who he was, where he came from. First, we laughed about it. We just said this is just crazy talk. But then it just kept going and going. So my experience, in a way, was inside of this claim of the Mueller report. And the Russia hoax thing. It was the mirror image in the UK. They're running the same, exactly the same narrative.
Arron Banks: The democrats have selected Joe Biden, the worst candidate in living memory. He can hardly string a sentence together.
“Are you going to come to the United States this election fall?” I put the question in front of him.
“We'll definitely attend one of the debates and enjoy some of the stuff that's going on, one hundred percent.I'm sure that's gonna be an epic three or four months. The democrats have selected Joe Biden, the worst candidate in living memory. He can hardly string a sentence together. And then you've got Trump and Trump's Trump, isn't he?What's going on is playing well into Trump's hands at the moment. So I think politically it's actually helping him. Because the thing is that people have not changed their views by what's going on. It will polarize things, and he will turn out fine. It's gonna be a very interesting election. We still got a lot of friends we made during the Trump campaign. We will be more observers than anything, just enjoying what's going on,” he revealed.
“Are you going to have a big party as you did in 2017 at the Hay-Adams hotel in D.C.?” I asked him.
“At a party, we had for the inauguration, half of the people involved in the Mueller report came to the party, including General Flynn. I think we might have to leave the party for another time?” he said, recalling how that turned out.
When Arron Banks met with a journalist, Carol Cadwalladr, at the London pub for an interview, he told me that he was reasonably friendly to her. “I gave her a lift back to the train station,” he revealed. Flash forward to 2020, the two are in a defamation lawsuit Banks filed against Cadwalladr for the claims she made against him during her TED talk accusing him of taking the money from Russia to fund the Leave EU campaign. Cadwalladr is widely known for her work on the nexus between the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica, documented in the movie The Great Hack on Netflix.
“She's built up a sort of a bit of a reputation on this whole Russia thing. The bottom line is, it comes back to what I was saying before about how the left operates. For instance, if I meet you for lunch, then, I have some sort of covert relationship with you. We met with the Americans. We met all sorts of people. This idea that because you meet someone, you're immediately involved in a conspiracy with them, it's just nonsense,” Banks said.
The Russia story fired off the news cycle when it came to light that Arron Banks had meetings with Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian Ambassador in London, the headline news that broke once Bank’s emails were hacked.
Arron Banks: We've been exonerated by the NCA who turned us upside down inside out and found absolutely nothing.
“I mean, it's hardly a covert relationship when you actually write about it in a book. If it was truly a secret relationship to get money out of Russia to run the campaign, why the heck would I write about it in my book? Well, Carol would say, ‘Oh, it's in plain sight’. It's so clever that you say something like that. And then it's in plain sight. We wrote about the fact we've had a nice lunch with the Russian ambassador. What happens is, you get invited to the embassy for drinks, you get invited to the party. And that's what life is like. But the idea that you're suddenly part of some conspiracy because of that? I struggle with that. We've been exonerated by the NCA who turned us upside down inside out and found absolutely nothing. Even the Electoral Commission were forced to concede that there was nothing to it. And so where does she [Carol] go with that?
Banks: I was reluctant to file a defamation lawsuit against Carol Cadwalladr because I believe in free speech
At the moment, the defamation lawsuit against Carol Cadwalladr is awaiting a resolution in the British court. “I don't like defamation by design,” Banks began. “I do believe in freedom of speech. I do think it's very important. But, you know, for her to publicly say to 10 million TED users that I am basically a Russian spy? No, you can't just say that. I think that Carol and a number of her colleagues, they've pursued it in a way that is less than journalistic. Let's put it that way. So Carol is not known as “correction Carol” for nothing. The problem is that the corrections always end up on page 29 buried, you know, right behind the crossword," he said.
“There were three grounds of defamation. Carol said that I had a covert relationship with the Russians in respect to campaign finance. That's the major thing and the other things are subsidiaries,” Banks explained.
“I was reluctant to file a defamation lawsuit because I believe in free speech. One of the great things about America is that you do have free speech. You can say whatever damn you like. But then I thought, what Carol did, it's a step too far. I’ve been exonerated in the court of law, and she's still saying the same thing. And then what do you do when she just keeps doing it? They keep printing this stuff,” he said. “I would like to see her apologize for getting it wrong,” Banks asserted.
It’s unlikely that Arron Banks will just disappear quietly into the night from the world of politics. But, whether he is planning to leverage his public profile to a political office is yet to be seen.
Arron Banks:The left-wing political project can't win a ballot box. So they just continue to impose their worldview through the source they have.
“I do not know, really. I am very dismayed by what's going on in the UK. There's a crisis in conservative values in the UK. Having delivered 80 seat majority for the conservatives, I'm just astonished that they've got such a lack of self-confidence and a lack of belief in conservative values. Why did Boris Johnson win? He tapped into what I would call traditional working-class voters. You'd be very familiar with that in the US. It’s almost like the conservative values I believe in that are under attack, despite winning the polls over and over again. And this is the problem. The left-wing political project can't win a ballot box. So they just continue to impose their worldview through the source they have,” said Banks.
Arron Banks’ book, The Bad Boys of Brexit, ghostwritten by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, contains effortless references to the legendary Harry’s Bar in Venice, the Fitzgerald style fireworks in the Hamptons, and voyages to Bermuda and Belize, a high-end contrast to the populist slant of the Brexit. “I didn't inherit money. I built my business from the ground up. So the fact that I go to Venice and sip cocktails at Harry’s Bar does not make me an elitist. It just means I made some money and I am having a nice time,” he explained.
Arron Banks: I'm feeling a lot fresher and happier than I was six months ago because I was actually feeling absolutely exhausted.
Banks told me that he enjoys doing business, although, to him, it's a bit like an internal scorecard. “It's kind of keeping score as to how good you are, as opposed to making the money. I must say I'm feeling a lot fresher and happier than I was six months ago because I was actually feeling absolutely exhausted. I mean, it's four years, four and a half years of trench warfare, and it was tiring. And so actually I have been taking a step back and really enjoying life.”
Banks has five kids and he told me that he has been mainly spending his time around family doing things together. “ My son is here in New Zealand and we have been playing sports and doing stuff together. We've had a lovely time.He's playing cricket. I've been watching that, which was sort of my dream holiday. We've been off practicing and sailing. We've been getting fit, which is quite cool. It's been fun. But it took two or three months to actually chill out and actually get stuff out of the system. A two week holiday would not have done it.I had to take a complete break. And politics is just dire right now. I cannot remember a time that I've been less infused to actually engage in terms of what's going on with politics. It's really dreadful. So, yeah, I hope for the better things.” He paused.“I actually quite like the idea of writing my own book about everything that happened. We did have fun and we tried to be happy warriors and to take the fight to the enemy, but not be vindictive. And sometimes it was very hard to be that way because, you know, attacks were very personal and very hurtful,” he said looking at the calm, Auckland’s waters.
Sign up for The Pavlovic Today Newsletter featuring news, scoops, exclusive interviews and expert analysis