During a guest appearances on Fox News earlier this year, Dan Bongino, the bombastic NRATV host, forcefully defended President Donald Trump’s dubious claim that the feds had inserted a “spy” into his 2016 campaign out of political malice.
It was standard fare for both Fox News, which traffics in this type of pro-Trump commentary nightly, and for Bongino, who is one of the president’s most vocal boosters. And yet, inside the White House, the remark resonated deeply with one cable-obsessed viewer.
“Did you see what Bongino said?” Trump gushed, according to a source with direct knowledge of the private comments. “He’s so right, he’s just so right about it all. You have to see it.”
And “see it” Trump has. The president’s love of doting television personalities is well known. But in recent months, Bongino has emerged as a source of particular affection, admired by Trump for his “warrior” personality and MAGA ethos. When griping to those close to him about Robert Mueller’s investigation or the Justice Department, the president has been known to name-check Bongino and enthusiastically ask confidants if they saw his latest TV appearance.
It is a remarkable rise in relevance for a man who was, not so long ago, trying unsuccessfully to parlay his career as a Secret Service agent into a seat in Congress. Having lost a Republican House primary just two years ago, Bongino is now part of a small universe of people who have a major influence on the president. And he does almost all of it by simply and constantly getting himself booked on Trump’s preferred cable news network.
Unlike the most prominent of informal Trump advisers like Lou Dobbs or Sean Hannity, Bongino isn’t a Fox host. He’s not even a Fox News contributor. He’s a frequent guest on the network and he commands the president’s interest and attention in a way that even many of Trump’s senior administration officials simply do not.
It is unclear how much Trump and Bongino actually communicate directly to each other.
“I don’t really want to comment on that,” Bongino said, when asked by The Daily Beast about his relationship with the president. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to speak about private conversations.”
But others in Trump orbit say Bongino’s stock is rising. David Bossie, the former deputy campaign manager for Trump and the president of Citizens United, said he’d had “many conversations over the last couple of years with the president” during which he’d “heard him make statements that hold Dan Bongino in high regard,” with specific mentions of his media hits, podcasting, and writing.
Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and the president’s attorney for the Russia probe, also joined in on applauding the Trump whisperer. “I believe he is a very credible person and very logical in his presentation,” the president’s lawyer messaged The Daily Beast.
Another source close to the president told The Daily Beast that the relationship may go even deeper. Trump, the source said, once prefaced a rant about malicious influences inside the FBI and DOJ, with the phrase “Bongino told me that…”—an utterance the source found “odd” because it wasn’t clear at that point that Bongino and Trump actually spoke to each other.
Whether or not they speak regularly, Trump is clearly listening to what Bongino is saying. Early last month, when much of the Republican and Democratic political elite gathered to mourn Sen. John McCain at a cathedral in Washington, D.C., the president was instead sequestered in the White House, tweeting lines from a Fox & Friends episode, quoting Bongino, before heading to his private golf club in Virginia.
It was hardly the first time Trump had quoted and promoted Bongino to his tens of millions of followers. In fact, Bongino is nowadays one of the biggest recurring characters to appear on the president’s hyperactive personal Twitter account.
“He speaks the president’s language,” a senior White House official said of the Fox guest, explaining why Trump is such a Bongino-buff.
Like Trump, Bongino is a product of New York City. In fact, he was born in Queens, and makes a point of noting his and the president’s shared roots. “I’m a Queens kid, he’s a Queens kid,” Bongino said in an interview this week.
He got his bachelor’s and master's degrees from the City University of New York, and spent four years at the NYPD before joining the U.S. Secret Service. President Barack Obama was one of his protectees, and Bongino drew some bipartisan scorn when he authored a tell-all book about his time on Obama’s detail.
The book was released after the first of Bongino’s three unsuccessful congressional campaigns. In 2012, he challenged Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), falling woefully short. In 2014, he took a shot at a House seat in Maryland, narrowly losing to Rep. John Delaney (D-MD). Two years later, Bongino moved to Florida and ran for a House seat there, finishing third in the district’s Republican primary contest.
Along the way, he made his share of enemies, a fact in which he seems to revel.
The “location” feature of Bongino’s Twitter bio says he’s located “Inside Caputo's Head.” The joke refers to Politico reporter Marc Caputo, who in late 2016 posted the audio of a phone interview with an incredibly irate Bongino. During the lengthy call, Bongino alleged that Caputo was someone who must have gotten beat up a lot in school, told the journalist he could "sue your ass" for recording the call, and loudly dubbed Caputo an “idiot,” “loser,” “dope,” and a “motherfucker.”
Reached for comment on this interaction, Caputo chuckled and characterized Bongino as “emotionally” and “mentally unstable,” with a “temper problem.”
“You really wonder why an organization that promotes responsible gun use would want someone like that as one of their spokesmen,” the Politico reporter added. “He does not think rationally, he cannot control his emotions, he does not care about the truth. And fortunately voters in two separate states, in three separate races, have decided he shouldn’t represent them.”
Though Caputo conceded that Bongino is “smart” and a “clever study” in the Trump era, he also knocked him as a “carpetbagger’s carpetbagger,” and one who has molded himself in the Trumpian model to “wage war on the press and wage war on the truth.”
In the wake his unsuccessful political career, Bongino has opted to wage that war through conservative media instead, at times via its fringier outlets. He has repeatedly appeared on Infowars, the conspiracy-theory hotbed hosted by Alex Jones (a Trump booster and perhaps America’s most notorious conspiracy theorist) to discuss topics such as the “left-wing media” and the tea party.
More recently, Bongino has devoted the bulk of his screen time on Fox to trying to discredit the Trump-Russia investigations. “I have never in my life seen such an obvious frame job and setup,” he said in one typical Fox & Friends appearance in May. “[T]his was a sting operation against the Trump team.”
While Bongino appears regularly on Fox News’s explicitly conservative opinion shows, he is not a desired property for the “hard-news” programs that populate the network’s daytime lineup. According to transcripts compiled by the television monitoring service TVEyes, Bongino hasn’t appeared on a “hard news” program on the network in several months.
One of the reasons is that not everyone at the network shares Trump’s appreciation for his temperament and commentary. Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that after a behind-the-scenes disagreement off-camera one evening, on the set of the Shannon Bream-hosted show Fox News @ Night, Bongino was barred from returning to the program. “He became unglued and was banned from this show,” said one person with knowledge of the situation. “He’s not someone who would typically be on the news shows.”
White House officials declined to comment on the record for this story. So did Fox News.
The affinity between Bongino and Trump is as much about style as it is substance. Bongino says there are a number of policy areas in which he disagrees with Trump—he mentioned trade policy in particular. But at the end of the day, he said he admired Trump’s moxy.
“He’s the right guy for the right time,” Bongino said of Trump. “History picks interesting messengers.” As evidence, he pointed to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in spite of sexual assault allegations against him. “You and I both know nearly every other Republican president would’ve backed away from Kavanaugh.”
What animates Bongino more than anything else appears to be the thrill of a political knife fight. He mocked establishment Republicans for lacking “balls” and during an appearance on NRATV earlier this month declared that his “entire life right now is about owning the libs.”
“That’s it,” he explained. “We win, you lose, the new rules are in effect. My life is all about owning the libs now.”
It’s an ethos that explains the political paths he’s taken and alliances he’s formed. In the 2016 campaign, Bongino originally backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and came fully into Trump’s camp only after he locked up the GOP nomination. Among the lawmakers he admires are Cruz, Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul and House Freedom Caucus founding member Rep. Jim Jordan—politicians, he says, who have benefited greatly during this administration. Under this president, “they’re not left alone on the battlefield anymore. Now you have Trump, the field general, out there rallying the troops.”
Bongino has personally benefited from Trump, too. His ascendancy as a media personality and a man who wields presidential-level influence has been aided by the odd media consumption habits of the commander in chief and the Republican Party’s own embrace of the unapologetically pugnacious, if sometimes outrageous, political style that Bongino embodies. The approach that made him virtually unelectable in a previous era has turned him into a trusted ally in the current one.
“It’s much better to have [Dan] on your side than not,” said Matt Schlapp, the Republican lobbyist, American Conservative Union chairman, and top Trump surrogate. Bongino, Schlapp added, is “honest, candid, direct, passionate.”
—With additional reporting by Lachlan Cartwright