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Why Trump won't like Steve Bannon's New York indictment

Bannon’s legal fate is a portent for his old boss, former President Donald Trump.

Former White House staffer Steve Bannon turned himself in to New York authorities Thursday morning to face a set of charges that should be intensely familiar to him: money laundering, scheming to defraud and conspiracy.

It’s the second time Bannon's been accused of bilking donors with promises to construct a wall on the southern border.

It’s the second time in as many years that Bannon's been accused of bilking donors with promises to construct a wall on the southern border. He was indicted by a federal grand jury that accused him of the same in August 2020. While these new New York state charges threaten to interrupt his current role as a Christian nationalist election army assembler, they also serve as a reminder to his onetime boss, former President Donald Trump, about the limits of protection from the law that even the presidency can afford.

Importantly, Bannon’s legal fate is a portent for his former boss. It indicates that even if Trump had issued himself a “self-pardon” in the closing days of his term, as he reportedly considered, it wouldn’t protect him from the state and local investigations into him and his businesses. As he prepares to take another run at the presidency, Trump is likely to become more convinced than ever that only the Oval Office can provide the legal safety he craves.

Bannon was first indicted along with three others in August 2020 in relation to the “We Build the Wall” organization. Federal prosecutors claimed in their affidavit that the men raised $25 million under the guise of being a “volunteer organization.” Rather than building a wall on the border with Mexico, according to prosecutors, they built up massive personal bank accounts “using fake invoices and sham 'vendor' arrangements.” Bannon pleaded not guilty to those charges.

I’m obligated to say that Bannon “allegedly” did these things as he has never stood trial for these accusations. In one of his last acts as president, Trump issued Bannon a pardon that absolved him of the two federal charges he faced: conspiring to commit wire fraud and conspiring to commit money laundering.

It was an affront to justice, but an act the White House said at the time was justified because Bannon “has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen."

Trump issued Bannon a pardon that absolved him of the two federal charges he faced.

Since then, Bannon has kept himself busy continuing to promote Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, agitating the base with talk of dismantling the deep state, and organizing reactionaries to intimidate voters at the polls. He’s also stood opposed to the House Jan. 6 committee’s investigation efforts and is now awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of contempt of Congress in July.

That conviction and the new state charges he now faces illustrate the limits of even Trump’s abuse of his powers. While the president has near-absolute leeway to waive convictions, commute sentences or, as in Bannon’s case, pre-empt trials, that authority is only over federal charges. Against state-level charges, a presidential pardon is worthless.

Soon after Bannon’s reprieve was issued, the Manhattan district attorney’s office opened an investigation into the alleged “We Build the Wall” scam. That investigation came to bear Thursday as Bannon turned himself in. In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday, Bannon said, "This is nothing more than a partisan political weaponization of the criminal justice system."

Moreover, Bannon’s pardon was particularly narrow. Even if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg wasn’t the one to charge Bannon under state law for the alleged con job, there was still plenty of room for the Justice Department to do so, former prosecutor Andrew Weissmann wrote for Just Security last year. And as the contempt of Congress conviction highlighted, Bannon’s was not a blanket pardon for all crimes he may have committed in general.

Trump won’t like this reminder of the reach that states can bring to bear against him and his cronies. His company is also under civil investigation in New York state, a case that steadily marches forward even as Bragg pursues a criminal investigation into the Trump Organization. And his attempt to force Georgia officials to declare him the winner of the 2020 election is the subject of an ongoing Fulton County investigation, one that will only close in tighter on Trump as more of his allies are forced to testify.