7.15 AM, on the 20th August. On a super yacht off the coast of Connecticut, Steve Bannon has just been arrested for fraud. Officials claim that Trump’s former campaign executive and adviser used money donated to help build the US-Mexican border wall for personal expenses. This makes him just one in a string of President Trump’s associates to face legal charges. The implications of Bannon’s arrest could be extensive. Trump’s re-election is at stake, as is public perception of his administration.
Bannon’s history is an interesting one. Before becoming a key political actor alongside Donald Trump, his career focused on various business opportunities. After beginning his career as a Goldman Sachs investment banker, he launched his own boutique financial firm, then moved into earth science research and eventually, the entertainment industry. During this time, Bannon also became a board member at Cambridge Analytica.
The firm became a household name following an international scandal. In an effort to secure support for President Trump, the personal data of millions of Facebook users was harvested and used for political advertising. Around 10,000 individualised, targeted ads were created and distributed online – Cambridge Analytica claims this got Trump into the White House.
Bannon is also co-founder of Breitbart news, an online outlet for right-wing news, comment and opinions that is also very pro-Trump. It has been described as pushing “racist, sexist, xenophobic and antisemitic material into the vein of the alternative right“. Bannon himself proudly claimed that under his leadership, Breitbart had become “the platform for the alt-right”. This political orientation is not shared by current Breitbart editors: however, it tells us a lot about Bannon’s political attitudes.
He brought his ideology and stratagems into the 2016 Trump campaign, leaving Breitbart to become Chief Executive Officer of the campaign. Once in the White House, he became Chief Strategist, and one of Trump’s most trusted advisers. Bannon and the president presented as a strong team, sharing similar views and the same willingness to disrupt.
After just seven months, Bannon left – or was made to leave – the White House. Reasons were never confirmed, but rumours include him undermining Trump’s ego, Bannon undercutting Trump with public political statements, and taking credit for Trump’s election. Political motivations may have also played a part: his exit coincided with the violent clashes of far-right and counter protestors in Charlottesville, which included the same alt-right that Bannon had steered Breitbart news towards.
Bannon’s fall from grace was not yet complete. Prosecutors claim he used hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to support the Crowdfunding campaign ‘We Build the Wall’ for personal expenses. At present, campaign donations exceed $25,000,000 – it was promised this would all directly support the build of the US-Mexico border wall.
Three others were charged alongside him, for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering (each with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years). Prosecutors claim that the money was pocketed through fabricated invoices and sham “vendor” agreements and spent on everything from cosmetic surgery and cars to personal taxes. Bannon pleaded not guilty and has been released on bail set at $5 million.
Trump has not so far been supportive of his former associate, stating he felt “very badly” about the situation and refuting any link with the crime. He distanced himself from both Bannon: “I haven’t been dealing with him for a long period of time,” and the crowdfunding campaign: “I know nothing about the project other than I didn’t like when I read about it”. Previous reports however show the President as supportive of the campaign.
The campaign itself has also been immensely controversial. Firstly, because it is privately funded, yet supports government activity. Secondly, because its founders – including Bannon and the other accused – have attracted criticism for a lack of transparency and slow project development.
Finally, an ongoing lawsuit claims that the sections of the wall constructed by the campaign are damaging neighbouring properties. This is due to the wall interfering with the natural flow of the Rio Grande, which runs alongside it. Both the environment and private properties are being impacted by this.
What will happen next is still unclear. What is clear is that a trend of Trump’s associates, both past and present, facing legal charges has developed. This is incredibly damaging to his reputation and potentially to US democracy.
Paul Manafort, another former campaign campaign chief, was convicted of tax and banking crimes, as well as conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The latter crimes were linked to lies Manafort told during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling with the 2016 US elections.
Roger Stone, Trump’s close friend and political adviser, was also charged following the Mueller investigation. During the 2016 presidential election, he was aware emails damaging Hillary Clinton’s campaign would be leaked and had been in contact with Wikileaks about them.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, including hush money paid to Stormy Daniels, and lied to Congress about the Trump Organisation’s investments in Russia.
The list continues. Many of those around President Trump seem to have committed fraud, monetary crimes or lied during investigations. More often than not, this seems to be in an effort to protect Trump or as an act of self-preservation. Apart from Steve Bannon, Trump has also usually expressed support for his former associates, claiming accusations were untrue or using his power to adjust sentencing.
This is concerning – a democracy has no room for key political figures forgoing the laws. Many cases are linked to the Mueller investigation, and in extension to Russia’s potential involvement in the 2016 elections, which the Senate Intelligence Committee recently published damning information about. This is especially critical as fair elections are one of the main pillars of democracy. The integrity of US democracy and Trump’s election and presidency are undermined by the actions of his associates.
The President being so closely associated with those who are willing to break the law makes for an uncomfortable atmosphere in US politics. So far, Bannon’s arrest has not triggered significant public outcry or resulted in an extreme loss of support for President Trump. However, it is another argument to support the claims of those who disagree with him and criticise him.
White-collar crimes, like fraud and extortion, as committed by Bannon, Manafort, Cohen and others, are likely to feed into a narrative of political elitism. Voters may question how President Trump chooses his political advisers and associates, whether they are capable of leading the country and why some of them seem to believe they stand above the law. This is likely to increase distrust in Trump and American political institutions.
This could have consequences in the election – whilst Trump’s voter base is unlikely to be swayed, the swing voters and those who did not cast their vote in 2016 must be considered. This includes the young people who have turned 18 in the past four years, those who did not bother voting because they did not believe Trump could be elected, and those who usually support neither party.
Trump’s divisiveness may entice voters who are not usually politically engaged or aren’t strongly affiliated with either party to vote for the Democrats. Not necessarily because they heavily support them, but simply because this may remove Trump from office. The smaller of two evils, one could argue.
Joe Biden is currently ahead in the polls and the Democrats will try their hardest to keep it that way. Especially by targeting areas (and voter groups) in which Trump is already on thin ice for many. Social and economic inequality, Black Lives Matter, rising unemployment and poverty due to Covid-19 – all of these are at the heart of Biden’s campaign whilst Trump has been heavily criticised for his responses.
Whilst it is unclear how the Steve Bannon situation will unfold, it certainly adds pressure onto Trump and his administration, especially in light of the upcoming election. Bannon may have damning information to share about the President, his 2016 campaign or other associates, which could cause further difficulties. But his arrest alone could permanently alter public perception of Trump’s administration and impact the election.
The common saying “you are who you surround yourself with” comes to mind – the mental jump between Trump committing a crime and his associates committing crimes is not that big. Steve Bannon’s arrest could therefore have detrimental long term consequences for the President, as it once again shows that the Trump administration has little regard for integrity. Ultimately, this could mobilise many Americans to vote him out.