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Image: Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon
President Donald Trump congratulates Senior Counselor to the President, Stephen Bannon, during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 22, 2017.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

The thematic perfection of Trump's 11th-hour pardon for Bannon

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon share a kinship: they both exploited the same group of unsuspecting conservative voters, selling the same con.


The White House left little doubt that Donald Trump would issue an avalanche of pardons and commutations before leaving office. What we didn't know was who'd make the cut and when we'd see the list.

With this in mind, around 1 a.m. on Trump's final day in office, the White House made its announcement, and while the Republican apparently resisted the urge to pardon himself and his relatives, one name stood out among many.

President Donald Trump issued a wave of pardons Tuesday night, using the final hours of his presidency to grant clemency to 143 people, including former top White House aide Steve Bannon, according to a list made public by the White House on Wednesday morning. Bannon — Trump's former chief strategist in the White House who was in charge of the final months of his 2016 presidential campaign — was indicted in August along with three others on wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges.

The full list was posted online here. (Note: Once Joe Biden's team takes control of the White House website, it's unclear whether links like these will remain active.)

Naturally, it's going to take some time to review each of the beneficiaries and their many crimes. It's notable, for example, that Trump pardoned Elliott Broidy -- the former RNC deputy finance chair who, as regular viewers of The Rachel Maddow Show know, found himself at the center of multiple controversies.

There was also the pardon for Paul Erickson, a conservative political operative who made headlines in 2018 for having been romantically involved with Russian agent Maria Butina.

Trump also continued to show an amazing tolerance for congressional corruption, offering pardons to three former Republican members of Congress: Arizona's Rick Renzi, North Carolina's Robin Hayes, and California's Duke Cunningham. Each of the three former GOP lawmakers were convicted in bribery schemes.

But it's the Bannon pardon that's likely to generate the most attention, and for good reason.

As regular readers may recall, a group called We Build the Wall came into existence a few years ago, ostensibly created to supplement the White House's efforts to construct giant barriers along the U.S./Mexico border. While the Trump administration used taxpayer money, raided from the Pentagon budget, to construct fencing, We Build the Wall would raise private funds from donors in pursuit of the same goal.

As a high-profile political player, Bannon's role as a board member of the outfit lent it credibility. It wasn't long before We Build the Wall raised $25 million for the private venture.

But as ProPublica and the Texas Tribune reported over summer, the group's efforts didn't go well: structural issues raised concerns that the conservative outfit delivered a defective product.

The whole endeavor became so problematic that Trump tried to distance himself from the group and its project. He was, by all appearances, brazenly lying. The Texas Tribune reported, Trump "now claims this privately funded border wall in the Rio Grande Valley ... was built to 'make me look bad,' even though the project's builder and funders are all Trump supporters."

For his part, Bannon told the public that We Build The Wall would function as "a volunteer organization." In their federal criminal indictment, however, federal prosecutors alleged that Bannon and his cohorts "defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction."

In the middle of the night, Trump made the allegations against Bannon disappear.

There is a thematic perfection to the circumstances: as the Washington Post's Greg Miller noted, Trump lied to his supporters about building a wall; Bannon allegedly defrauded those same Trump supporters by claiming he was raising money to build a wall; and Trump then pardoned Bannon -- after being charged by the Trump administration's prosecutors -- for the scheme.

In other words, Trump and Bannon share a kinship: they both exploited the same group of unsuspecting conservative voters, selling the same con. (The phrase "game recognize game" keeps coming to mind.)

In the process, Bannon has become the latest in a series of Team Trump operatives to receive a get-out-of-jail-free card, joining Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Michael Flynn, among others.

There are still four hours remaining in Trump's term. Whether there will be one last round of pardons remains an open question.