What to Cheer About in the Sentencing of Steve Bannon

And what not to cheer

Black-and-white photo of Steve Bannon
Bloomberg / Getty

The famously logorrheic Steve Bannon finally found a reason to shut up, and it’s going to get him locked up.

Bannon, the former éminence grise (and grease) to Donald Trump, was sentenced today to four months in prison for contempt of Congress, stemming from his refusal to testify to the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 presidential election. He’ll also be fined $6,500.

The sentence is a landmark because no one has been sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress in decades. The term is shy of the six months that prosecutors sought, but well more than the 30-day mandatory minimum, as well as the probation that Bannon’s lawyers sought. He probably won’t see the inside of a cell for some time, if ever, as he is free while he appeals.

Bannon’s sentence is a victory for the rule of law—but not an unmitigated one. It is a message to those in the Trump orbit that you cannot simply ignore laws, and that Trump’s umbrella of protection has big holes. It also demonstrates that the ability to defy Congress is large, but not infinite. Yet even the most ardent Trump critics should not be too jubilant. The committee whose inquiry led to Bannon’s sentence seems to be steaming toward an abrupt end, a Trump-friendly Congress is likely, Bannon’s most nefarious activities are probably not going to be seriously harmed, and Trump himself has still evaded consequences in court.

While Trump was in office, he and many of those in his orbit found that they could defy authority with few consequences. When Democrats took over the House following the 2018 midterms, Trump stonewalled their attempts at congressional oversight. Using a tactic he’d employed very effectively in the private sector, he sought to tie up any consequences in a flurry of litigation. He extorted Ukraine for aid in the 2020 election and was impeached, but was saved by Republicans in the Senate, who voted to acquit him.

As for his henchmen, he sent messages (sometimes implicit, sometimes private, sometimes blatant) that he would protect those who stuck by him with pardons and clemency, which encouraged them to defy Congress, the Justice Department, and other investigators. When one fixer, Michael Cohen, broke with Trump, the president ensured that he became an example of what would happen to apostates. Those who stayed loyal, including Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Bannon, received their pardons. Among other things, those pardons deprived Americans of a chance to understand the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Pardons only function retrospectively, though; Bannon’s problem is he decided to continue to push his luck. When the House committee subpoenaed him to testify about Trump’s extensive effort to subvert the 2020 election, he refused, claiming (among other things) that his conversations with Trump were protected by executive privilege, even though he was not employed by the federal government. Bannon’s claim was particularly unpersuasive because he has talked at length about his work to overturn the election.

The committee called his bluff and referred him to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. The case always seemed fairly cut-and-dried: The committee had subpoena power, Bannon was open about defying it, and his arguments were flimsy. He was duly convicted and sentenced. In a heartening detail, the judge in the case, Carl Nichols, was appointed by Trump—a reminder that although some federal judges he nominated seem willing to bend reality and reason to aid the former president, many of them are committed to the rule of law.

Because Trump is no longer president, he can’t shield Bannon, who is also separately facing charges of fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy in New York State related to a bizarre ploy to build a border wall with private money. If Trump is reelected president in 2024, Bannon might be in line for another pardon, but that’s some time off, and won’t be a great deal of comfort if Bannon is stuck in a federal prison for months.

Despite Bannon’s loquacity, figuring out quite what he had in mind here is tough to know. (He is neither nearly as stupid as many of his critics think, nor nearly as smart as he believes.) Perhaps he doubted that the case would really go this far. More likely, he realized he could be convicted but decided that was worth the risk to make himself into a martyr and claim that the case showed how the “deep state” persecutes right-wing figures. (When he says this, remember how simple the matter is: Congress legally required him to testify, and he did not.)

Seeing someone close to Trump suffer a consequence like this that Trump can’t quickly erase is cause for some celebration. Even if contempt is just a “process crime,” the result shows that laws can’t just be ignored. Peter Navarro, another former Trump aide who refused to testify and is supposed to go on trial next month, may take warning from Bannon’s plight.

But there’s only so much to cheer about. The January 6 committee seems likely to come to an end soon, if Republicans regain the majority in the House as expected, though the Justice Department may take up the work of investigating the election subversion. A GOP-controlled Congress stocked with Trump acolytes will be even less likely to hold Trump accountable than the one he faced from 2017 to 2019. Trump, though he’s up against some serious legal challenges, has so far avoided consequences for the election plot (or much anything else).

For Bannon, thumbing his nose at Congress is a mere diversion. As my colleague Jennifer Senior wrote in a definitive profile this summer, Bannon continues to work to undermine American democracy in ways large and small. Going to prison—or fighting the sentence—might slow him down a bit, but it won’t stop him.