The Bannon Pardon Is Worse Than You Think
Federal investigators will have to scrutinize this pardon extensively—as it looks rotten.
If you know anything about the pardon of Steve Bannon that outgoing president Donald Trump just issued, you know that Bannon was allegedly involved in a scam that Trump would have been proud of (right up to the moment the former CEO of the 2016 Trump campaign was indicted for it): taking money from Trump voters to “build the wall”—that would be Trump’s xenophobic and purposeless vanity wall on America’s southern border—and pocketing it. Advisers to the scam included other major Trumpworld figures, like Erik Prince.
(As of 1AM on January 20, we don’t know if Trump will be pardoning Prince as well. Prince is the subject of a criminal referral to the DOJ for shamelessly and repeatedly lying to Congress during the Mueller investigation.)
If you know a second thing about the Trump pardon of Steve Bannon, it’s that Trump only entertained the idea of pardoning Bannon in the first instance because, unlike so many other Republicans, Bannon was—in Trump’s view—“loyal” to him post-election.
Forget those two things.
Bannon wasn’t pardoned because Trump admired his grift or was tickled that the grift involved Trump’s pet project on the U.S.-Mexico border. And he wasn’t pardoned as a reward for his loyalty. I wrote a book (Proof of Corruption, Macmillan, 2020) about Trump’s history of bribery, and I can tell you that the man is instinctively transactional rather than sentimental: he doesn’t reward past loyalty, he rewards the promise of future benefit. Even sometimes Trump apologist Maggie Haberman of the New York Times writes that Trump pardoned Bannon because he decided that Bannon “could be useful to him in some way.”
That “some way” is a bit of a dodge, however, as we know exactly how Bannon can help Trump: by keeping his mouth shut about Trump’s affairs whenever possible, and lying about those affairs if compelled to participate in any ongoing federal investigations of Trump himself.
So what does Bannon know about Trump’s illicit activities post-2015? A lot.
Bannon was a witness in the Roger Stone trial, which focused tangentially on how much Trump knew about his adviser corps being in touch with a Kremlin cutout during the 2016 presidential election. The idea was that Bannon had the goods on what Trump knew about WikiLeaks being in contact with his campaign and, as importantly, when and how he found out what he knew. Bannon was also involved, in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, in a series of secret meetings with Saudi and Emirati agent George Nader, who funded a joint Saudi-Emirati-Israeli pro-Trump interference operation in the 2016 general election, and is now serving time in federal prison on child pornography-related charges. Bannon, Kushner, and several others met with Nader in the final weeks before election day in 2016, when Nader associate Joel Zamel was working feverishly on Trump’s behalf on a cyber-intelligence campaign designed to dovetail with the Kremlin’s attack on America’s electoral infrastructure.
After the 2016 election, Bannon was again involved in a series of secret meetings that involved Kushner and shady figures from the Middle East, including “MBZ”—Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the UAE, who had slipped into the United States to meet Trump without telling the U.S. government, a breach of diplomatic protocol—and the head of Saudi intelligence, who would later be involved in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The history of Bannon being present for major Trump-Sunni Arab meetings is actually quite a long one; when now-disgraced Trump national security adviser George Papadopoulos coordinated a meeting between Trump and “Red Sea conspiracy” figure Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi—the autocratic Egyptian president—in the late summer of 2016, Bannon was one of the few Trump aides in the room.
Throughout the 2016 presidential transition, Bannon was in touch with Trump adviser Erik Prince, including during the period that Prince secretly went to the Seychelles on Trump’s behalf to meet with the very Russians and Emiratis who had illegally aided Trump’s campaign months earlier. By the time Special Counsel Robert Mueller got to Bannon and Prince in 2017, however, both their phones had been wiped of any and all correspondence between them. Their explanations for their synchronized wipes, and the improbably convenient date-range of those wipes, were obvious lies that Mueller all but admitted were such on page 10 of Volume I of his now-famous 2019 report.
Following the 2020 election, Bannon returned to his prior role as a top Trump adviser, and was in contact with both Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself as the two men—it now appears—plotted an armed insurrection against the U.S. government with several Congressional and far-right-activist accomplices.
Trump has a history of buying or seeking to buy the silence of federal witnesses with official government actions—conduct that qualifies as the impeachable federal crime of bribery. He also has a history of being open to payment for official government actions, and in this case we know from recent major-media reporting that Giuliani is alleged to have been brokering Trump pardons for around $2 million a pop. Given that Bannon was in regular contact with Giuliani in December 2020, the concern about a pardon being sold or otherwise traded by Trump in a way that violates federal law is a serious one.
So don’t be confused about the Bannon pardon: it’s corrupt. And that’s exactly why, according to the Daily Beast, every White House attorney told the president not to issue it. But the promise of Bannon becoming a pliable witness in the future federal investigations Trump is now almost certain to face may have been too much for the venal about-to-be former president to pass up. Expect this Bannon pardon to be the subject of at least one federal investigation in the months ahead.