Let Bannon Arrest Be the Coda on Trump’s Corrupt Presidency

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Steve Bannon’s arrest on fraud charges is hardly a tragedy in the traditional sense of the word. Sure, the fall of a hero is the hallmark of tragedy, and Bannon considers himself an American hero — a self-perception that comes through very clearly in Errol Morris’s brilliant and edgy interview film with Bannon, American Dharma.

But Bannon’s fall from grace happened a long time ago, when President Donald Trump fired him from his role as chief political strategist in 2017, much less than a year into his presidency. After his arrest, Trump was quick to say that he “hadn’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time.”

So Bannon’s arrest is best understood as a kind of coda. The extraordinary last four years of U.S. history are going to conclude not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Corruption has hounded Donald Trump’s presidency and his associates from the start. Now it seems to be catching up with him. The same day as the Bannon arrest, a federal district court ruled that Trump must turn over his tax returns to the New York district attorney as part of an ongoing investigation. Once Trump is out of office, he could be liable to criminal charges in New York state for business dealings dating back to before his presidency.

The bizarre scheme in connection with which Bannon and several others have been indicted is, symbolically, almost too perfect: an online fundraising effort to raise money for a border wall to be built not by the government of the United States, but by a private foundation. The patsies? Trump-sympathetic conservatives.

How could this idea not be a fraud, even if its promoters hadn’t promised to spend 100% of the proceeds on construction while (allegedly) siphoning off proceeds for themselves? Sections of the actual wall are wildly expensive. There was literally no way a private organization was going to be able to build more than a few feet, even if the money had been intended for that purpose.

Trump himself said on Thursday that he disapproved of the project, which he considered “showboating.” When it comes to showboating, he knows what he’s talking about: The wall — the actual wall — was always an instance of political showboating, with little credible chance of meaningfully reducing illegal border-crossing. The private wall-building scheme was the shadow of a shadow.

The indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York says that Bannon and others defrauded donors by lying to them about how their donations would be spent. Then they took money from the donations. Bannon’s own nonprofit got roughly $1 million from the wall donations. Some of that allegedly went to pay Bannon’s expenses and bills. Bannon has a tough road ahead of him to claim that he didn’t participate in the fraud — or that he didn’t benefit from it. There are no guarantees, but the odds are that Bannon will have to plead guilty or be found guilty.

If Trump loses to Joe Biden in November, the Bannon arrest will bookend his term in office. Corruption didn’t bring down Trump’s presidency. But with close associates like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen convicted and jailed, corruption will be the watchword of the presidency’s aftermath. And no one will forget that Trump commuted the sentence of political adviser Roger Stone; or that his attorney general, William Barr, retracted the charges against his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

If Trump wins re-election, corruption will still swirl around his administration. But with a little luck, we will have moved on to a new phase of enforcement — like the state charges brewing in the New York district attorney’s office.

We are all exhausted by the last four years. It’s time for the clean-up to begin.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Deep Background.” He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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