London (CNN)Until he was jailed for breaking the strict rules that govern the reporting of British court cases earlier this year, Tommy Robinson was among the most marginal of British political figures, little known outside the far-right circles in which he has moved for the past 10 years or so.
A jailed UK far-right activist has gained some big-name US supporters
But when Donald Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon appeared on a radio show hosted by his populist fellow traveler Nigel Farage at the time of the US President's controversial visit to the UK earlier this month, he talked of Robinson as something of a cause célèbre.
"I don't think he's a bad guy. I think he's a solid guy and I think he's got to be released from prison," Bannon told Farage. In a furious off-air exchange after the show had ended, Bannon went further. "Tommy Robinson is the f***ing backbone of this country. You lose guys like Tommy Robinson, you're not going to have a country," he said, according to audio leaked to Buzzfeed.
It was a ringing endorsement from a leading figure in the US alt-right for someone who has so far largely failed to break out of fringe politics in the UK. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, founded the English Defence League in 2009, a group that described itself as "the forefront of the counter-jihad." He left the EDL in 2013 but continued as a far-right activist, attacking the influence of Islamic extremism and arguing against Muslim immigration. He has been convicted of assault, and served jail terms for fraud and an attempt to enter the US on a false passport.
Bannon did not mention any of this on Farage's radio show. Instead, he concerned himself with Robinson's involvement in a trial of four Pakistani men accused of sexual offenses against white girls in northern England. In May, Robinson pleaded guilty to contempt of court for a Facebook Live webcast he conducted while the trial was taking place, in which he filmed defendants as they arrived in court and discussed the trial. His actions breached tight restrictions intended to prevent British trials being prejudiced, and he was jailed for 13 months.
But while Bannon may have been the most prominent US figure to take up Robinson's cause, he was not the first. CNN has confirmed that, in June, a US State Department official, Sam Brownback, raised Robinson's case in a meeting with the British ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch. Brownback, a former Republican governor of Kansas, was at the embassy in his role as US ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
British officials do not deny that a meeting about issues of religious freedom took place, and that Robinson's case was raised.
What was said at the meeting is a matter of some dispute. A Reuters report on July 13, quoting two sources in the pro-Robinson camp, suggested the Trump administration might publicly criticize Britain's handling of the case if Robinson was not treated more sympathetically.
An official at the British Embassy would only say: "The characterization of the details of the conversation is not accurate."
The US State Department also disputed how the meeting was described. "We refute as completely false the reports which wrongly assert that Ambassador Brownback urged the UK government to act on this issue or threatened repercussions in any way."
Brownback's office referred CNN to the State Department.
Neither side would say why Brownback, who was narrowly confirmed in January only on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence, had even raised the issue. Robinson is not an American citizen and, although he is appealing the length of his sentence, does not claim to have been wrongly imprisoned.
British officials seemed surprised that Brownback had heard about Robinson in the first place.
An ally of Robinson, Raheem Kassam, told CNN he had briefed Brownback about the case.