The surprise federal charges against Steve Bannon may be just the beginning of a brand-new legal nightmare for President Trump.
That’s because the bombshell indictment raises a potentially devastating question: Could Bannon attempt to escape from his own legal jeopardy by offering up information about his former boss, or the inner workings of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign?
Federal prosecutors will likely be curious to find out what Bannon knows about Trumpworld, including any potential wrongdoing by the campaign, legal experts said.
“The big question in my mind is whether Bannon has information about other criminal conduct that he might trade in exchange for a deal with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School.
The charges against Bannon are related, on the surface level at least, to his political work for Trump.
Bannon and three others were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud over their attempts to raise private funds to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — the very same kind of wall that became a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign.
Prosecutors say Bannon and his alleged co-conspirators skimmed vast sums from donations, despite pledging that all the money would go toward their wall. Bannon allegedly raked in $1 million, while one of his co-defendants allegedly splashed out funds on a golf cart, a boat, and even plastic surgery.
The charges carry a maximum 20-year sentence if they’re convicted, prosecutors said.
Trump distanced himself from Bannon Thursday as the bombshell news broke over Washington, D.C., telling reporters he didn’t approve of Bannon’s private efforts. And so far there’s no overt sign from prosecutors that their investigation could stretch beyond the four men who were arrested Thursday morning.
Trump’s inner circle
Yet plenty of other members of Trump’s inner circle have found themselves with a lot to tell prosecutors, and a great willingness to do so, once they were facing criminal indictment.
President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, once boasted he’d take a bullet for Trump. Instead, after pleading guilty to crimes that he said he undertook for Trump’s benefit, Cohen emerged as one of Trump’s noisiest critics.
Cohen flipped like a pancake, and provided robust cooperation to multiple teams of investigators, including former special counsel Robert Mueller, the Southern District of New York, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. He even testified against Trump under oath before Congress.
Others closely involved in the 2016 campaign have also pleaded guilty to a smorgasbord of crimes, and cooperated with prosecutors. Examples include 2016 Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, and Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Now, for Bannon, the pressure is on.
“When a defendant is facing strong federal charges, his lawyer will naturally explore whether he can trade cooperation for leniency,” said Barbara McQuade, Detroit’s former top federal prosecutor. “Here, Bannon is in a position to know a great deal about the conduct of the Trump campaign because he was campaign manager in 2016.”
Hope for a pardon?
Bannon might resist, however, and try to hold out for a pardon or commutation from Trump. But Bannon has already testified in multiple cases in Trump’s orbit, including the criminal case against former Trump adviser Roger Stone for lying to congressional investigators.
Trump recently commuted Stone’s sentence, and Bannon might hope for similar treatment. But Stone and Trump have a much longer relationship, and legal observers who have followed the cases closely said they weren’t so sure Bannon would enjoy the same kind of robust, shoulder-to-shoulder support from Trump.
“I think the prosecutors are always open to entertain cooperation, although Bannon likely expects to be pardoned or commuted after what we saw with Roger Stone,” said Harry Sandick, a former SDNY prosecutor. But, he added, “I don’t view Bannon as unlikely a cooperator as Stone, given that Stone’s crimes were ones of obstruction.”
Legal experts said the case against Bannon and his alleged co-conspirators looks strong and well-documented.
“The indictment strongly suggests that the prosecutors have an avalanche of documents that corroborate the charges,” said Gene Rossi, a former prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“Other than the fact that Bannon was a key adviser to President Trump, and that the wall is a pet political project of the President's, this is a pretty bread-and-butter case of fraud,” said David Alan Sklansky, a former federal prosecutor. “It's not a complicated scheme. It's run-of-the-mill ripoff, promising people that their money would be used for one thing, and then secretly diverting it for another purpose: the enrichment of the people running the operation.”
Cover: President Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon addresses during a debate entitled 'Sovereignism vs Europeanism' at the headquarters of strategic consultancy Comin & Partners on March 25, 2019 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)