From the Left



Steve Bannon and the Culture of Impunity

Joe Conason on

Among right-wing Republicans, the impending incarceration of Stephen K. Bannon has provoked a torrent of sputtering rage.

"I stand with Steve Bannon!" was the defiant slogan barked by scores of prominent figures on the right, after a federal judge ordered the fascist media personality and adviser to former President Donald Trump to report to federal prison, where he is to begin serving a four-month sentence for contempt of Congress on July 1. Bannon has begged the Supreme Court to review his case -- and perhaps the corrupt justices will answer his plea, although he is clearly guilty of refusing to testify before the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 insurrection, which he helped to instigate.

But there is a peculiar aspect to the outpouring of support for Bannon on the right. Whether he goes to prison next month or not, he will soon face state charges of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, in the same New York courtroom where Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts last month.

What makes this scandal so compelling is that the victims defrauded in the swindle allegedly perpetrated by Bannon and his three confederates were all devoted followers of Trump. These MAGA faithful were deceived into believing their money would go to construction of a wall along our southern border. Instead, donations to "We Build the Wall" disappeared into the accounts of its sponsors, including Bannon, who had sworn publicly not to accept any payment, salary or remuneration for this great patriotic effort.

To describe this multimillion-dollar fraud scheme as "alleged" is a journalistic formality. It is the same criminal conspiracy that led to convictions years ago for Bannon's coconspirators Andrew Badolato, Timothy Shea and a disabled veteran named Brian Kolfage, who gorged themselves on the contributions of hundreds of thousands of true-believing conservatives -- and misused that money to buy luxury vehicles, cosmetic surgery, a golf cart, hotel accommodations, jewelry and lots of other goodies.

Following their indictment by federal prosecutors in Aug. 2020 -- under the Trump Justice Department -- the defendants at first blustered about a "political hit job" and a "weaponized judicial system," much as Bannon still does every day, along with screaming threats to jail Democrats, reporters and prosecutors. But after their lawyers perused the copious evidence compiled by investigators, Kolfage and Badolato quietly made plea agreements.

"I knew what I was doing was wrong and a crime," Kolfage eventually told the court when he pled guilty. "I knew this was wrong, and I'm terribly, terribly sorry for what I did, and I humbly beg the court for mercy," Badolato whined. Shea went to trial, a big mistake that ended in his Oct. 2021 conviction at trial and a sentence of five years.

Bannon alone escaped, at least temporarily, after Trump bestowed a preemptive pardon on "Sloppy Steve" during his final hours in the White House. (Dirty trickster Roger Stone, also a Trump adviser and likewise the beneficiary of presidential clemency, publicly accused Bannon of blackmailing Trump to get the pardon, calling him a "grifter scumbag.")


But New York prosecutors, wise to the former president's misuse of his pardon power to reward those who might have testified against him, proceeded to indict Bannon under state racketeering statutes for perpetrating his "We Build the Wall" fraud in the Empire State.

No doubt Bannon's attorneys can muster some legal arguments against a state indictment that essentially recapitulates federal charges, just as they have argued he wasn't obliged to answer a congressional subpoena. And nobody should be surprised by the hypocrisy of Republicans who want to impeach Biden administration officials for rebuffing congressional summons, while simultaneously excusing Bannon's defiance.

Even if Bannon's acceptance of the Trump pardon were not an admission of guilt -- as it surely is -- prosecutors have assembled an overwhelming pile of evidence, which sent his three coconspirators to prison. There are bank documents showing illicit money transfers, incriminating text messages showing how the scam worked, and wire records showing how Bannon abused a nonprofit he controlled to funnel money into his personal account.

Still, he not only remains popular among the MAGA mob but is lionized by congressional Republicans, "conservative" celebrities and institutional leaders who flock to his "War Room" studio on Capitol Hill. In the Trump era, there is no accountability on the right, no social sanction against felonious misconduct. The miscreants can pretend to be innocent victims, their followers can pretend to believe them, and the culture of impunity spreads like a toxic plume over our nation.


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