Updated: January 21, 2021 10:55:23 am
With just hours to go before he leaves the White House, US President Donald Trump Tuesday evening pardoned Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist who was charged with fraud last year. Trump has pardoned 73 people, including Bannon and rapper Lil Wayne, and commuted the sentences of 70 others, including rapper Kodak Black and Kwame Kilpatrick, a former mayor of Detroit.
In a statement, the White House said Bannon was “an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen”.
Bannon, 67, served as a key adviser to then-Republican Party candidate Donald Trump during his 2016 election campaign, and was part of Trump’s close circle at the White House for a few months after he won the the presidency.
Before joining the Trump campaign, Bannon was the executive head of Breitbart News, a far-right website that continuously backed Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 elections while attacking his mainstream Republican rivals. His picking by Trump’s team was considered highly controversial, with critics calling him out as “racist, sexist and anti-semitic”.
In his pre-Breitbart career, Bannon worked for Goldman Sachs, owned a boutique investment banking firm, and was a Hollywood film producer – even enjoying a share of the profits of the hit American sitcom “Seinfeld”.
At the White House, Steve Bannon’s role as chief strategist gave him a direct link to Donald Trump, and many decisions made by the US President were considerably influenced by Bannon. His sway in the White House was considered on par with the Chief of Staff, formally the highest-ranking member in the President’s team.
Trump and Bannon were considered close ideological allies; even Trump’s decision early on in his term to ban travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US was said to have been Bannon’s idea.
So, what ended Bannon’s White House stint?
In August 2017, a few months after the Trump administration took charge, Bannon left the White House, reportedly after a power tussle between him and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close aide, as well as other top advisers.
Reports at the time said Trump, too, was dissatisfied with Bannon, who he believed was responsible for leaks to the press and for taking credit for the 2016 Republican victory.
What did Bannon do post his exit?
Bannon then returned to Breitbart, but divisions between him and Trump continued to grow. Bannon called Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey the biggest mistake in “modern political history”, and called a meeting between Trump’s son and a group of Russians – a rendezvous that was highly scrutinised during Trump’s impeachment trial – as “treasonous”.
Trump struck back, saying in January 2018, “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind”. Trump’s rebuke reportedly caused Bannon to also run afoul with the Mercer family, Breitbart’s main financial backers, causing him to step down from the website.
In August 2019, however, Trump and Bannon appeared to have resolved their differences, with the President calling Bannon “one of my best pupils” in a tweet.
So, how did Bannon get into trouble?
In August 2020, Bannon was charged with fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with a fundraising campaign to privately build a wall on the border between the US and Mexico – a major campaign promise by Trump. The project idea had been floated in 2018 after the US Congress refused to sanction funds required for the wall.
Bannon and three others were accused of duping thousands of people who donated for the effort, named “We Build the Wall”, which raised $25 million. Of this money, prosecutors alleged that Bannon received over $1 million through a non-profit organisation that he controlled, some of which he used for covering personal expenses worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.
Prosecutors at the time said that the project “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalising on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretence that all of that money would be spent on construction”.
Bannon pleaded not guilty, and in the future would have faced the charges in court had he not received Trump’s pardon.
Why a presidential pardon for Steve Bannon is notable
Usually, the US President exercises clemency powers to forgive those who have already been convicted for crimes, and are about to go or are already in prison.
In Bannon’s case, however, only charges had been pressed, and the trial was not set to begin for months. Now that Trump has issued a pardon, the prosecution itself ends and any possibility that Bannon could be punished for the fraud charge gets extinguished. In its statement announcing the pardon, the White House said prosecutors had “pursued” Bannon with charges “related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project”.
The pardon has been criticised by Democratic Party leaders. Adam Schiff, a senior leader and member of Congress, said on Twitter, “Steve Bannon is getting a pardon from Trump after defrauding Trump’s own supporters into paying for a wall that Trump promised Mexico would pay for. And if that all sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Thank God we have only 12 more hours of this den of thieves.”
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