Steve Bannon hawks disinformation to support Trump as legal troubles mount – The Guardian US
Far-right strategist appeals obstruction of Congress conviction while facing New York fraud charges – and rallying around Trump
The far-right strategist and Donald Trump loyalist Steve Bannon is again playing an influential role in the propaganda circles around the former US president as he bids to return to the White House, even as Bannon faces a barrage of legal problems.
The conspiratorial Bannon, who spearheaded part of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and served as chief White House strategist in the first half of 2017, is waiting to see if a federal appeals court overturns his obstruction of Congress conviction. He also faces other legal problems from New York fraud charges, former lawyers and potentially other fronts.
But at the same time he is pushing a tidal wave of election disinformation on his War Room podcast to help Trump win the presidency again and promote a Maga-heavy policy agenda as Trump and his allies plot out authoritarian-style plans for a second presidency.
Ex-justice department prosecutors, Democrats and Republicans say Bannon’s odds of winning his obstruction of Congress appeal are long, and foresee more legal headaches ahead for the pugnacious Make America Great Again guru, while analysts warn that by spreading election falsehoods and other misinformation he endangers democracy.
At present, the biggest legal threat confronting Bannon is his two-count federal conviction and a four-month jail sentence for defying a House panel subpoena for documents and testimony concerning the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results.
Last fall, Bannon appealed his contempt of Congress conviction for refusing the House subpoena, citing executive privilege and advice from a lawyer, even though he had long left the administration and the matters covered by the subpoena.
Separately, Bannon is slated to be tried in May on New York charges of fraud and money laundering involving his key role in a private “We Build the Wall” Mexico venture that bilked thousands of investors out of about $25m, a scheme in which three Bannon associates have been convicted.
Bannon last month sought to dismiss the charges, which alleged in part that $1m of the funds were improperly diverted to Bannon and a top associate, but Manhattan prosecutors wrote in a court filing that his argument “bears little resemblance to reality”.
The charges by the Manhattan district attorney against Bannon, an alleged architect of the scheme to raise private funds for Trump’s abortive Mexico wall, mirror earlier ones from federal prosecutors against Bannon that Trump pardoned him for the night before leaving office.
Experts say more legal scrutiny of Bannon could come on other fronts. The exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, a Bannon ally and benefactor who last year was charged by federal prosecutors in a billion-dollar fraud case, was charged again in January for running a “criminal enterprise” that bilked Chinese American dissidents out of tens of millions of dollars.
Guo allegedly promoted a cryptocurrency scam, propaganda and other businesses, plus financing a lavish lifestyle including purchasing a yacht, on which Bannon in 2020 was arrested on the federal Mexico wall project charges.
Among the businesses linked to Guo in the superseding indictment was the conservative social media platform Gettr, which he helped finance and launch in 2021 and which Bannon’s War Room has profited from. Guo is slated to be tried in April.
Bannon’s War Room podcast has reaped tens of thousands of dollars a month in ads from Gettr, according to a source familiar with its operations and news reports.
War Room, which regularly hosts staunch Trump allies such as the congresswoman Elise Stefanik and the My Pillow CEO, Mike Lindell, last year was named the top promoter among political podcasts of misinformation about elections, Covid-19 and other issues, according to a Brookings Institution study.
Unfazed, Bannon told the New York Times his top ranking was a “badge of honor … What they call disinformation or misinformation we consider the truth.”
A key figure in promoting the January 6 Save America rally, Bannon proved prescient shortly before the insurrection on his War Room podcast when he said “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow”.
Former justice department prosecutors and members of both parties say Bannon’s legal woes are mounting.
“Like former president Donald Trump, Steve Bannon’s sketchy business and political activities seem to be a magnet for criminal prosecutions and investigations,” said Paul Pelletier, an ex-acting chief of the Department of Justice’s fraud section.
“With his criminal ‘Build the Wall’ fraud trial looming and his criminal contempt of Congress long-shot appeal pending, it appears Bannon’s penchant for associating with and profiting from unsavory characters and his own schemes will keep him busy fending off financial fraud investigations for the foreseeable future.
“Bannon’s business and financial ties with Guo should certainly attract rigorous scrutiny,” he added.
Other justice department alumni concur Bannon faces big legal headaches.
“Bannon is nothing more than a garden variety fraudster,” said the ex-federal prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig. “He had the benefit of a patron in the White House who rewarded his loyalty and protected him.” But with Trump gone, “he is now going to pay the price.
“His appeal will not succeed and his criminal trial in New York will result in conviction. Only a Trump victory in November can save him from the federal [obstruction] case and even that won’t suffice to save him in New York.”
Bannon has pleaded not guilty to the various criminal charges he faces, and his attorney Harlan Protass did not respond to calls for comment.
Still, the ex-Republican congressman Charlie Dent noted: “It’s absurd and nonsensical for Bannon to think he was protected by executive privilege for events that occurred when he was not a White House employee.”
The Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, a key member of the House panel that investigated the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s role in it, said: “Bannon seems to have been deeply enmeshed in the planning of the disruption of the peaceful transfer of power and the seizing of the presidency for Donald Trump.”
Raskin noted: “Bannon is the intellectual ringleader of the Maga circus … In fact, he fancies himself not just the philosopher of white Christian nationalism in our country but the political strategist for allied autocrats and theocrats all over the world.”
In that role, Bannon’s War Room podcast has loomed large, making him an influential figure in promoting Trump and Maga world views including falsehoods about the 2020 election and Covid-19.
Bannon’s personal account shows he has nearly 7 million followers and on Gettr, where War Room is one of the most popular shows, more than 800,000 followers.
Bannon’s close Gettr ties are underscored by his frequent mention of the platform on War Room. Valerie Wirtschafter, a Brookings fellow in emerging technologies and AI who led its podcast research, said that Gettr was referenced, often multiple times, in more than 60% of more than 1,000 episodes reviewed.
Trump allies who were on War Room multiple times last year included Stefanik, Lindell and the ex-justice department assistant attorney general Jeff Clark, with whom Trump plotted to promote fake electors in several states that Biden won.
Bannon has touted Clark, an unindicted co-conspirator in the special counsel Jack Smith’s four-count indictment of Trump over his attempts to subvert the election results, as attorney general if the former president wins another term. Clark was also indicted along with Trump and 17 others by the Fulton county district attorney, Fani Willis, for trying to overturn Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.
“Bannon’s War Room stands out – with claims about votes being switched by Dominion machines to Sharpies being used to disenfranchise voters to the Covid-19 virus being a plot to deny Trump a second term, among many, many others,” Wirtschafter said.
While Bannon’s War Room keeps pushing Maga misinformation, the bombastic strategist faces other financial and legal woes.
Robert Costello, a former Bannon lawyer who played a key role in Trump’s pardon of the strategist, filed a claim against him last year for $480,000 in monies owed. Costello and his firm won a summary judgment from New York’s supreme court to obtain payment, but Bannon, with Protass’s help, is fighting the ruling.
Interestingly, Protass in a court filing last month wrote that an effort by Costello’s firm to access Bannon’s bank account and depose him “poses a significant risk of compromising” his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination with fraud charges against him pending in New York.
Regarding Bannon’s upcoming Mexico wall fraud trial, Raskin said: “Given that three associates of Bannon have been convicted of the conduct charged in these events, it has to be a serious threat to Bannon too.”
Bannon’s multiple legal problems do not surprise Raskin. “He has adopted the persona of bad boy lawlessness. Like Trump, Bannon considers himself way beyond the reach of the law.”