The United States Versus Steve Bannon

Masked and handcuffed, President Trump’s former chief strategist was arraigned on charges of fraud.

Getty / The Atlantic

Shortly after 4 p.m. this afternoon, the sunburned visage of Steve Bannon popped up on a projector screen inside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist was sitting in what appeared to be a holding cell in lieu of a courtroom, wearing an open-collared shirt, a white mask, and handcuffs.

Hours earlier, federal agents had arrested Bannon on a yacht off the coast of Connecticut and brought him to New York City, where a grand jury had indicted him for a scheme to defraud donors to a crowdsourcing campaign that raised more than $25 million in private money to build a section of Trump’s southern-border wall. Prosecutors allege that Bannon and three co-defendants each took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the group, known as We Build the Wall, for their personal use, despite assuring the public that the money would all go toward the wall.

The details in the 24-page indictment describe a scam that was almost comically flagrant: The four men lied, over and over again, about not taking even “a penny in compensation” and then bilked the fund anyway. Bannon allegedly took more than $1 million for himself, while the ringleader of the effort, Brian Kolfage, an Air Force veteran, used some of the money to buy a boat named the Warfighter that was spotted in a recent Trump “boat parade” in Florida.

Now each of them could face up to 20 years in prison. “This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist,” said Philip Bartlett, the New York inspector in charge for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which handled the investigation along with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan.

Inside the Moynihan courthouse this afternoon, the famously voluble Bannon was reduced to offering a few monosyllabic responses to a magistrate judge, Stewart Aaron, who read him his Miranda rights and confirmed that Bannon understood the charges. Bannon’s virtual appearance was a function of the coronavirus pandemic: Only the judge appeared in the courtroom, while lawyers for the government and the defense called in by phone. Reporters watched the proceedings via closed-circuit television in a repurposed jury room, sitting in chairs spaced several feet apart rather than the usual wooden pews. Even the sketch artists were forced to capture the scene through a low-resolution web video. “A whole new world,” one journalist sighed as he took his seat in what amounted to an overflow room.

If Bannon displayed any emotion, it couldn’t be discerned through the mask. He answered Aaron’s largely perfunctory questions crisply and directly. Was he able to hear the audio? Aaron asked. “Uh, yes, I am,” Bannon replied. Had he consented to appear virtually instead of physically at the hearing? “Yes, your honor, I did.”

One of Bannon’s lawyers, William Burck, entered a plea of not guilty on his client’s behalf. The government agreed to release him on a $5 million bond, of which Bannon must put up $1.7 million within two weeks to stay out of jail. On one level, Bannon’s arrest this morning, coming on the day former Vice President Joe Biden will formally accept the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump this fall, was a stunner: It was not widely reported that Bannon was under criminal investigation, and though personally estranged from the president since his ouster from the White House three years ago this week, he has remained a Trump booster on the outside. Yet the news felt oddly familiar during an administration in which the president’s former national security adviser, campaign chairman, deputy campaign manager, lawyer, and political confidant have already been prosecuted for federal crimes.

During any previous national convention, the revelation that a sitting president’s onetime chief strategist had been arrested and indicted would have sent the challenger’s campaign scrambling to rewrite speeches and work the news into that evening’s program. Biden’s campaign, however, merely shrugged: “No one needed a federal indictment to know that Steve Bannon was a fraud,” deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told reporters when she was asked about the news on a press call.
“Is it really any surprise that another one of the grifters he has surrounded himself with since he took office was indicted? Sadly, no it was not.”

While Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., had given a speech at a fundraiser for We Build the Wall, the president had recently distanced himself from the effort. “I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,” he tweeted last month, commenting on a report that a privately funded piece of the border wall was structurally unsound. “It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work.” Today, Trump told reporters that he felt “badly” for Bannon, whom he fired in August 2017. “I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time,” the president said. “I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.”

Adding to the intrigue around Bannon’s arrest, the U.S. attorney’s office that brought the indictment—the Southern District of New York—is the same one that has investigated several other Trump associates, including Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s former and current attorney, respectively. In June, Attorney General William Barr forced out the office’s top prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, although Berman left only after he was assured that the investigations his lieutenants were pursuing would continue and that his top deputy, Audrey Strauss, would take over as acting U.S. attorney. One of those probes, apparently, resulted in Bannon’s arrest and indictment today. ‘We remain dedicated to rooting out and prosecuting fraud wherever we find it,” Strauss said in a statement.

Before concluding the brief hearing, Judge Aaron advised Bannon that he could not travel outside the New York or Washington, D.C., metro areas (except to work in Connecticut), nor could he use private planes or boats. His partial freedom at least temporarily secured, Bannon was unbowed as he walked past a crush of reporters outside the courthouse. He waved and smiled, holding the mask that he had been required to wear inside the building. “This entire fiasco,” Bannon said, “is to stop people who want to build the wall.” Then he ducked into a car and left.