Paul Rosenzweig, Opinion contributor
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Aug. 21, 2020 | Updated 1:42 p.m. ET Aug. 21, 2020
Ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon was charged with fraud by federal prosecutors in connection with a border wall fundraising effort.
Bannon's arrest is the latest in a long line of criminal charges involving Trump confidants. This level of criminality surrounding a president is unparalleled.
In many ways it sounds like the plot of a cheap crime novel. The evil mastermind devises a scheme to fleece the unsuspecting public of millions of dollars. He lies to the public repeatedly about how the money they send him is going to be used. He hides the payments that he makes to himself and his co-conspirators behind a series of false invoices and fictitious nonprofit companies. In the end, he’s arrested while sitting on a boat owned by a mysterious exiled Chinese businessman.
But this isn’t the stuff of fiction. It’s the outline of the allegations against Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chief, and his alleged co-conspirators. Together, the defendants are said to have created a GoFundMe site, “We Build The Wall,” that promised to collect money from Americans and use it to help build President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall on the southern border with Mexico.
To reassure their donors, Bannon and Brian Kolfage, one of the indicted co-conspirators, repeatedly told the public that all of the money would go “directly to the wall!!! Not anyone’s pocket,” and that they would “take $0” from the funds for themselves. Bannon, Kolfage and their two co-defendants allegedly approved these statements (as the indictment puts it) “precisely because they understood and expected that donors would rely upon these representations, which were intended to maximize the fundraising potential of We Build The Wall.”
Shell corporations to line their pockets
If the allegations of the indictment are true, those statements were lies. Bannon is said to have laundered more than $1 million dollars through shell corporations, and the money was used, allegedly, to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon’s personal expenses and a salary of more than $350,000 to Kolfage.
There’s more to the story, of course, including the defendants’ efforts to conceal their alleged criminal conduct once they learned that they were under investigation. There is also the delicious irony that Bannon’s arrest was made by Postal Service criminal inspectors, at a time when the post office is under such public pressure for its alleged politicization.
In many ways, the scheme described is so tawdry and commonplace that it is practically banal. Bannon’s alleged fraud isn’t terribly unlike the fraud committed by Bernie Madoff as he bilked retirees of their pension funds in a Ponzi scheme. Or, for that matter, from the stock market lies told to unsuspecting investors by Jordan Belafort (made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street”). It’s garden-variety, white-collar theft, plain and simple.
And yet … what seems routine and common in the circles of corporate America is, in presidential circles, extraordinary. It is fair to say that the allegations of criminality against Trump’s inner circle are unprecedented in American history — and Bannon’s arrest is just the latest in a long line of criminal charges involving Trump’s confidants.
Trump Supreme Court goal: Slow walk the cases, hide secrets until the election is over
Bannon isn't even the first Trump campaign official to be charged with crimes. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of tax fraud and bank fraud. Deputy campaign manager Rick Gatespleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about the campaign and then cooperated with them. Foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying about the campaign’s contacts with Russia.
Campaign adviser Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump's national security adviser in the White House, also pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russia (though he is now trying to withdraw his plea and the attorney general has moved to dismiss his case). Even informal Trump advisers have been caught in the web of criminality. His former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has admitted to lyingabout hush money payments he made to porn stars who had affairs with the president.
A cliché as much as a criminal gang
And longtime (now pardoned) Trump consigliere Roger Stone was convicted of lying to Congress and tampering with witnesses in order to conceal the nature of the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. The new bipartisan report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligenceconcludes that Stone's lies were likely offered, in part, to conceal Trump’s own knowledge of Russia’s interference.
This level of criminality surrounding a president is unparalleled. We have not seen its like in American history before (though perhaps Richard Nixon comes close).
And yet …
Bannon’s alleged criminality really is commonplace, cheap and tawdry.
There is a faint air of ludicrousness about him and the others in Trump’s criminal inner circle. In their hackneyed criminality and in their fealty to a con man, they are more pathetic and pitiable than they are evil and malevolent. They are a cliché, as much as they are a criminal gang. And their leader is revealed, more clearly every day, as nothing more than a hustler and a scam artist. Bannon is just the latest evidence of that sad reality.
Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow in the National Security and Cyber Security Program at the R Street Institute, was senior counsel to Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation and a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @RosenzweigP
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