Steve Bannon’s Criminal Nightmare Just Got Very Real

And Donald Trump is not here to save him this time.

The infamous, triple-shirted, right-wing political provocateur Steve Bannon could be sent to prison for more than a decade if he’s convicted in the financial fraud case unveiled against him by New York prosecutors on Thursday.

And this time, former President Donald Trump can’t save him. 

That means Bannon, 68, now faces the gravest criminal jeopardy of his turbulent career over allegedly ripping off Trump supporters rallying around one of the former president’s biggest applause lines: Building a wall on the southern border. 

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Bannon’s conviction earlier this summer on two misdemeanor counts of contempt of Congress will likely yield far less than the maximum two years behind bars when he’s sentenced next month. By contrast, the most serious of Bannon’s five alleged felonies in New York could send him away for as long as 15 years. And two of Bannon’s former partners in the allegedly fraudulent We Build The Wall nonprofit have already pleaded guilty in a parallel federal case, meaning they could potentially be called in to provide damaging testimony against him at trial.

“Bannon’s federal criminal contempt conviction is a slap on the wrist compared to what he’s facing in this fraud case,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia. “The evidence against him appears to be very strong.” 

The online crowdfunding scheme raised more than $15 million to build a border wall while publicly insisting the group’s leadership would not get paid. But New York officials accuse Bannon of helping to siphon funds to secretly enrich the group’s president, Brian Kolfage, and himself.   

“They defrauded Americans and New Yorkers,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a press conference on Thursday announcing the charges alongside Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. “He diverted funds for paying the president of this organization and for personal expenses as well.” 

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“It is a crime to turn a profit by lying to donors, and in New York, you will be held accountable,” Bragg said. “Stephen Bannon acted as the architect of a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud thousands of donors across the country.” 

Bannon pleaded not guilty on Thursday, and presented the charges against him as politically motivated. 

"This is what happens in the last days of a dying regime,” Bannon told reporters as police officers escorted him through the hallway in handcuffs. “They will never shut me up. They'll have to kill me first. I have not yet begun to fight.”

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Round two

This is the second time prosecutors have targeted Bannon over the alleged sham charity.

Federal prosecutors indicted Bannon in 2020 on charges of wire fraud and money laundering, and agents arrested him while he was sailing off the coast of Connecticut on a 152-foot superyacht belonging to an exiled Chinese billionaire. 

Trump saved his former campaign aide with a presidential pardon right before leaving the White House. Trump didn’t show the same generosity to Bannon’s partners, however—and they went on to face the music. 

Kolfage, a triple-amputee Air Force veteran from Miramar Beach, Florida, pleaded guilty for his role in the scheme, and agreed to serve from four to five years in prison and forfeit $17.8 million. One codefendant, a financier named Andrew Badolato, also pleaded guilty and now faces between three-and-a-half to four years. 

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Both men are due to be sentenced in December. Without guilty pleas, Kolfage would have been subject to a maximum sentence of up to 46 years. Badolato would have faced a maximum of 20 years.

Just like Bannon did on Thursday, Kolfage initially slammed the case against him as politically motivated, and blasted federal prosecutors as “corrupt ass holes.” But Kolfage took a decidedly different tone at the hearing last April in which he admitted to crimes. 

“I induced donors to opt to the new project in part through the misrepresentation that I would not profit from We Build the Wall or take a salary or compensation,” Kolfage told the judge. “I knowingly and willingly conspired to receive money from the donations.”

The trial of a third defendant, Timothy Shea, ended with a deadlocked jury in July. Prosecutors have said they’re ready to retry the case. 

New York state prosecutors are now effectively stepping up to reprise the charges against Bannon that Trump made disappear. In doing so, they revealed a raft of evidence against him. 

Bannon sent a text message to one of his alleged co-conspirators at We Build The Wall that there would be “no deals I don’t approve,” James told a press conference on Thursday. According to the indictment, Bannon sent another text message that read: “You want $100k to [Unindicted Co-Conspirator 1.]” 

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The Manafort precedent

Bannon dismissed the charges against him with his trademark bravado, branding them “nonsense” as he swaggered out of the Manhattan courthouse on Thursday afternoon. 

There’s a precedent that might appear, on the surface, to give Bannon cause for optimism. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has taken aim at a high profile Trump campaign aide before—and missed. 

Like Bannon, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort faced federal charges over his finances. Manafort was convicted on eight out of 18 counts against him in a trial in Virginia, after prosecutors accused him of hiding millions from U.S. tax authorities in overseas accounts.

The previous Manhattan DA, Cyrus Vance, then charged Manafort with a fresh state-level indictment. 

Manafort ultimately defeated the state case by arguing the charges were too similar to the ones brought against him in federal court, in violation of a strict New York law banning defendants from being charged at the state level for crimes that are similar to previous federal charges. 

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Despite that victory, Manafort was sentenced to a total of seven years by two separate federal courts. He was released to home confinement after less than two years behind bars as part of a wider prisoner release related to the COVID pandemic, and eventually received a presidential pardon from Trump

In response to the Manafort saga, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law eliminating that double-jeopardy loophole for defendants who received presidential pardons. 

Bannon’s case will now be an early test of that new law. 

The new rules appear likely to stop Bannon from repeating Manafort’s good fortune, Duncan Levin, a former prosecutor who once oversaw the financial crimes unit in the Manhattan DA’s office, told VICE News.

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“The legislature studied the issue very closely after the Manafort case and appropriately made changes to the law that paved the way for this indictment against Bannon,” Levin said. “Prosecutors are acutely aware of the double-jeopardy issues now. With the law changed, I think this is going to pass muster.” 

Jill Wine-Banks, a former member of the prosecution team during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, agreed.

“I think the new law's carveout will apply here,” she told VICE News. 

Going medieval

If Bannon fails to have the case dismissed, he may have a hard time convincing the jury to see his side of the story, Rossi said. 

“Jurors hate when people are greedy while portraying themselves as benevolent,” Rossi said. “What seems to have happened here is that they were portraying themselves as benevolent, while picking the pockets of the donors. The donors were duped.” 

Bannon’s own courtroom record doesn’t create great cause for confidence in his legal dexterity.

In his last trial in July, Bannon was accused of ignoring subpoenas from the Congressional committee investigating the insurrection of Jan. 6. The firebrand political strategist promised to turn the tables on his opponents. 

“Pray for our enemies,” Bannon thundered on his podcast. “We’re going medieval on these people. We’re going savage on these people. So pray for them.”

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In the end, Bannon didn’t go medieval on anyone. 

Bannon repeatedly tried to inject politics into the courtroom and to paint himself as the victim of a political vendetta waged by members of Congress. But his attempts to subpoena House members, including Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to interrogate them about their motives, were blocked by the judge. 

The trial lasted less than a week, and the jury took less than three hours to find him guilty.

Follow Greg Walters on Twitter.

Tagged:

Politics, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Crime

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