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Bannon’s One-Time Co-Conspirators Admit They Cheated Trump Supporters in the Conspiracy Trump Pardoned Bannon For

Thus far, SDNY (which was busy arresting the former President of Honduras on drug-trafficking charges) has not yet posted the minutes of yesterday’s plea hearing for Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato, much less their plea agreements and statements of offense.

Here is Adam Klasfeld’s live-tweet of the hearing and his write-up.

Until those documents are posted, we’re left with varying press descriptions of men — with whom Steve Bannon was charged, until a last minute pardon from Trump got him off federal charges — who cheated a bunch of Trump supporters. Klasfeld’s headline gets to that relationship:

Two of Steve Bannon’s Former Co-Defendants Just Pleaded Guilty to Allegations He Dodged Through Trump’s Pardon

NYT led with Bannon’s pardon:

After Pardon for Bannon, 2 Admit Bilking Donors to Border Wall

In Donald J. Trump’s final hours as president in January 2021, he pardoned his onetime chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who faced charges that he had conspired to swindle donors to a private group that promised to build a wall along the Mexican border.

But three men charged with Mr. Bannon were not pardoned, and two of them pleaded guilty on Thursday in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

The WaPo doesn’t even describe the crime in the headline,.

Disabled vet pleads guilty in border-wall scheme that included Bannon

WaPo describes Bannon’s involvement, and the allegation he personally cheated Trump supporters out of $1 million, this way.

“We Build the Wall” was a large-scale private crowdfunding effort orchestrated by Kolfage, Bannon, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea in 2018. Its stated goal was to help the federal government complete the coast-to-coast barrier President Donald Trump had repeatedly promised his supporters. The four men were arrested in August 2020, when prosecutors accused Bannon of personally pocketing more than $1 million.

Bannon, a far-right figure who was a key strategist in Trump’s 2016 campaign, followed Trump to the White House for a relatively short stint as an administration official.

Their relationship had not completely soured by the end of Trump’s presidency, and Bannon received a presidential pardon on the eve of Trump’s departure from the White House, part of a wave of more than 140 other clemency actions — including for Trump associates who were ensnared in the Justice Department’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Here’s how CNN handles the guilty pleas and Bannon’s involvement:

Two of Bannon’s co-defendants plead guilty to ‘We Build the Wall’ fraud

[snip]

The men are accused by federal prosecutors of using hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to an online crowdfunding campaign called We Build the Wall for personal expenses, among other things.

Bannon, who pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing, was pardoned by then-President Trump in his final days in office. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is investigating Bannon for the same conduct and whether it violated state law. The pardon only covered federal crimes.

Timothy Shea, a fourth man charged in the fundraising effort, has pleaded not guilty. Last month he indicated to the judge that he would plead guilty, but changed his mind and is set to go to trial next month.

Bannon and Kolfage promised donors that the campaign, which ultimately raised more than $25 million, was “a volunteer organization” and that “100% of the funds raised … will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose,” according to the indictment.

But instead, according to prosecutors, Bannon, through a nonprofit under his control, used more than $1 million from We Build the Wall to “secretly” pay Kolfage and cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon’s personal expenses.

The NYPost calls the men “fraudsters” in the headline and — in a caption to a Bannon photo — notes he “was involved in the swindling GoFundMe campaign.” To its credit, that may be the best summary of what happened.

It is, admittedly, difficult to get what happened legally into the story yet, much less in a headline. That’s because while Bannon’s acceptance of a pardon might be viewed as evidence of guilt, he has not himself admitted he cheated Trump’s supporters. Plus, he could still be at legal exposure himself. I noted in December when Bannon hired pardon broker Robert Costello that Bannon might still face NY State charges (in which prosecution his former co-defendants could testify against him). Even before Cy Vance left, he was pursuing that possibility.

Even ignoring the circumstances of Bannon’s pardon, this fraud goes to the core of Trump’s relationship with his followers. Bannon’s co-conspirator Kolfage admitted that he lied to donors, people so worked up over Trump’s fear-mongering over brown people that they donated their own money, in part so he could sustain his own posh lifestyle (something else the NYP with its emphasis on images highlighted). This scheme treated Trump’s enthusiastic supporters as targets to be cheated, rubes whose support for Trump could be easily exploited.

Steve Bannon sure understood the relationship Trump has with his supporters.

Now consider the circumstances of Bannon’s pardon.

Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence, who have shown a real willingness to testify to anyone who would listen, described how pardons for cheating Trump supporters were tied to a commitment to help Trump steal an election.

In December 2020, as the tour rolled around the country, Stockton and Lawrence say they got a call from Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and his chief of staff, Thomas Van Flein. According to Stockton, Van Flein claimed he and the congressman had just met with Trump, who was considering giving them a “blanket pardon” to address the “We Build the Wall” investigation.

“We were just in the Oval Office speaking about pardons and your names came up,” Van Flein allegedly said. Van Flein did not respond to a request for comment.

Gosar suggested the bus tour was helping Stockton and Lawrence build support for a pardon from the caucus and Trump. “Keep up the good work,” Gosar said, according to Stockton. “Everybody’s seen what you’re doing.”

The hypothetical pardon for the two of them was tied to helping Trump fool his supporters into believing he was cheated out of a victory he had won. Stockton and Lawrence didn’t end up getting such a pardon (thus far, they haven’t needed one).

But Bannon — who played an as-yet unexplained role in convincing thousands of Trump supporters to commit crimes in service of this fraud — did get his pardon.

This fraud — where Trump allowed close associates to cheat his supporters, only to have Trump selectively pardon the single important person accused in the fraud in seeming exchange for his role in an even bigger fraud — perfectly captures Trump’s parasitic relationship with the cult he has created. It’s a pyramid scheme of abuse in which, thus far, the little guys at the bottom are the ones who pay the biggest price.

Trump not only doesn’t care that these people cheated his supporters, he’s willing to reward Bannon for helping him cheat them on still grander scale.

How we describe this pyramid scheme of abuse going forward is an important measure of the press’ ability to capture how Trump works. Thus far, Trump supporters have never rebelled against being used and cheated like this. Instead, they double down on their belief that Trump is the victim, rather than the con man victimizing them.

But yesterday, Brian Kolfage admitted that Trump supporters are the victims.

The Evidence Needed for a Trump Prosecution

It would be easier to prosecute Trump for January 6 than Peter Navarro. I say that (in advance of today’s debate about referring Navarro and Dan Scavino for contempt) because it is far easier to tie Trump’s actions directly to the successful obstruction of the vote certification on January 6 than it would Navarro’s, and Navarro’s actions are fairly tangential to the proof that Trump’s actions met the elements of obstruction of the vote certification.

Months ago, I laid out how to prosecute Trump using the framework that DOJ has already used with hundreds of January 6 defendants. But in this post, I will show how much evidence DOJ has already collected proving the case against Trump by using the framework for Trump’s criminal exposure laid out by Judges Amit Mehta and David Carter, incorporating a key point made by Judge Reggie Walton.

In his opinion upholding the lawsuits against Trump, Amit Mehta found that it was plausible Trump conspired with the militias and also that he bore aid-and-abet liability for assaults at the Capitol (see this post and this post). He found that:

  • Trump and the militias jointly pursued an effort to disrupt the vote certification
  • Trump planned the unpermitted march to the Capitol
  • Trump encouraged the use of force and threats to thwart the certification from proceeding
  • Trump knew supporters would respond to his calls to come to DC and march on the Capitol
  • Trump called for collective action
  • Trump intended his “fight like hell” comment to be taken literally and rioters did take it literally
  • Trump ratified the riot

In his opinion finding that one email from John Eastman must be turned over to the January 6 Committee on a crime-fraud exception (see this post), Carter laid out the following proof that Trump obstructed the vote certification:

  • Trump tried to persuade Pence to disrupt the vote certification
  • He publicly appealed to Pence to do so
  • He called on his followers to walk to Congress to pressure Pence and Congress

Carter laid out this evidence that Trump had corrupt intent:

  • Proof that he had been told the vote fraud claims were false and his own request of Brad Raffensperger showed he knew he had lost
  • Trump had been told the Eastman’s plan was not legal

Carter laid out this evidence he had entered into a conspiracy:

  • Trump held lots of meetings to talk about plans to obstruct the vote count
  • Trump ratified Eastman’s plan in his Ellipse speech

To those two frameworks finding that Trump probably conspired to obstruct the vote certification, Judge Walton held that you cannot point to back-room plotting to get to the intentions of the actual rioters; you can only look at what the rioters themselves accessed, Trump’s public speech and Tweets (see this post).

This table (which is still very much a work in progress) lays out what evidence would be needed to prosecute Trump. The horizontal Elements of 1512(c)(2)/Relevant to Motive and Co-Conspirators sections show what is necessary given the elements of the offense as laid out by the judges and in DOJ filings, versus what might provide evidence of a broader conspiracy. The Must Have/Nice to Have columns show that for each kind of proof, there’s what is necessary and what would be really useful before indicting a former President.

In other words, the things in the yellow boxes are the things that would be necessary to show that Trump obstructed the vote certification. They basically amount to proof that things that Trump did brought the rioters to DC and to the Capitol and that he had the corrupt mens rea to charge with obstruction. I include there proof that Trump conspired with the militias, which I consider necessary because the Proud Boys, especially, took the bodies that Trump sent them and made those bodies tactically effective.

While prosecutors are still working on tying Roger Stone to both militias and tying Alex Jones and Ali Alexander into the crimes at the Capitol, much of the rest of this evidence has already been collected and rolled out in charging papers. For example, I showed some of the proof that rioters responded to Trump’s attacks on Pence by targeting their own attacks on Pence. There are a number of Trump comments that directly led hundreds of rioters to start making plans to come to DC, including arming themselves; NYT recently laid out the most central communication, a Tweet on December 19, 2020, though not only is that focus not new, it’s the tweet and response to which Arieh Kovler predicted the attack on the Capitol in real time.

A number of the other things you’d want to have before you charged Trump are available to DOJ:

  • Details of how the march to the Capitol happened and why it — and Ali Alexander’s permitted rallies at the Capitol — made a riot more likely
  • Explanations why Ellipse rally organizers balked at including people like Ali Alexander and Roger Stone
  • Testimony from Pence’s aides about how Trump pressured his Vice President in private

It is true that the testimony of several people — those involved in selling the Big Lie and Scavino’s coordination of the riot (including a particular focus on The Donald) — would be really useful. But that testimony is as important to proving that they were part of the conspiracy along with Trump.

Pat Cipollone’s tesitmony would be incredibly useful to that case, too. Normally, he could invoke privilege, but Trump already waived some of that privilege by sharing details about his conversations with Cipollone with Sean Hannity. If Cipollone did cooperate with DOJ, I don’t think he would leak that.

Similarly, the Relevant to Motive and Co-Conspirators rows — showing Trump’s coordination with Congress or his prior planning of it — would be really useful to have in prosecuting Trump. But ultimately, as Judge Walton held, what Trump did in private could not have influenced most of the rioters, because they never knew those details. As such, some of that information — precisely the kinds of stuff that TV lawyers say would be the first overt signs that Trump was a subject of the investigation — is more useful for including others in the conspiracy.

The most important of this evidence — communications from the December 18 meeting and comms during the day of the riot — are already in DOJ’s possession from Rudy’s seized phones, whether or not they obtained a warrant for that content yet.

Update: I’ve tweaked the horizontal headings on the table to clarify that the top half of the table stems from the elements of offense for 1512(c)(2), whereas the bottom half is clearly related and may help prove mens rea or incorporate other co-conspirators, but is not necessary (in my opinion) to meeting the elements of obstruction.

The Big Election Lie Built on the Last Big Election Lie

Welcome to Byron York’s readers! Since you’re here, you may be interested that Byron didn’t tell you in his error-riddled piece that I was years ahead of the Right Wing in debunking the dossier, and have even noted how Byron ran interference for Oleg Deripaska, thereby hiding the way Deripaska was really fucking over Paul Manafort. And not only did I not attribute Hillary’s loss to Russia, I even challenged the easy claims it was all Comey’s fault. You might ask yourself why Byron didn’t reveal any of that to you (to say nothing of misrepresenting what this post says).

NPR did a good piece last week on Trump’s Big Lie about winning the election.

Call it an insurrection or a coup attempt, it was fueled by what’s known as the “Big Lie”: the verifiably false assertion that Trump won. Joe Biden won 306 votes in the Electoral College, while Trump received 232. In the popular vote, Biden won by more than 7 million votes.

Many are warning that over the past year, that “big lie” of a stolen election has grown more entrenched and more dangerous.

It quoted Tim Snyder, an expert on authoritarians, on how the tactic of telling lies to turn a powerful person into a victim comes right out of Mein Kampf.

A couple of weeks later, he repeated the fiction at a rally in Iowa. “We didn’t lose,” he insisted to a crowd that rewarded him with chants of “Trump won!”

By inverting the narrative, attempting to slough off the “big lie” and pin it instead on his opponents, Trump exploited an age-old tactic, says Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder.

“Part of the character of the ‘big lie’ is that it turns the powerful person into the victim,” he says. “And then that allows the powerful person to actually exact revenge, like it’s a promise for the future.”

Snyder, author of the books The Road to Unfreedom and On Tyranny, has spent years studying the ways tyrants skewer truth. Snyder points to Hitler’s original definition of the “big lie” in his manifesto, Mein Kampf and the ways he used it to blame Jews for all of Germany’s woes.

“The lie is so big that it reorders the world,” Snyder says. “And so part of telling the big lie is that you immediately say it’s the other side that tells the big lie. Sadly, but it’s just a matter of record, all of that is in Mein Kampf.

That’s all true. As someone who has read virtually all of the statements of offense for those who have pled guilty for January 6, many credibly claim they really believed this Big Lie. Some still believe it. Their lives will be forever changed — some ruined — because they believed Trump was a victim and acted to avenge him.

But there’s something missing from all the worthwhile discussions of the Big Lie. It’s the lie those who helped tell this most recent Big Lie tell.

Consider this interview Chris Hayes did with Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lynn Lawrence, who’ve been doing a media tour to claim they were betrayed when Trump launched his mobsters on the Capitol.

When Hayes asked them whether they now admit that the election wasn’t stolen, Stockton instead attempted to turn the question around:

Do you now admit that the “Russia memes” that you guys ran 24-hours a day in the early days of the Trump that got maybe several million impressions which our pages often do. [cross chatter] There were tons of ridiculous stuff.

[snip]

Democrats and Republicans, every four years, whoever loses, right, then goes on to say, “oh, it was broken this way, it was broken this way.” It’s not that there aren’t things that aren’t broken and should be done better with mail-in balloting, with the way we verify people, the way we, make sure everybody has access to voting. There is common ground here. The problem is partisanly the Left fights, when they lose, the Right fights, when they lose.

[snip]

Or widespread Russian interference.

Stockton did, ultimately, concede that Biden is President and that there were tons of ridiculous claims about the election. But he excused his own contributions to sowing The Big Lie by equating lies about Trump’s loss with reporting about Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, and claimed that reporting arose out of Democratic excuses to explain Hillary’s loss.

That is, a key purveyor of the The Big Lie excuses his actions because MSNBC reported on a Russian investigation that was based off real facts, an investigation that led to the prosecution of Trump’s National Security Advisor, Trump’s Coffee Boy, Trump’s personal lawyer, Trump’s Campaign Manager, and Trump’s rat-fucker, all of whom covered up aspects of the Trump camp’s outreach to Russia in advance of becoming President (Paul Manafort wasn’t prosecuted for his lies, but Amy Berman Jackson agreed with the Mueller team that he lied to cover up, among other things, why he traded campaign strategy for $19 million in debt relief). Stockton equates reporting on all that — plus the dossier and Alfa Bank and the failson’s meeting to trade campaign dirt for sanctions relief, as well as details of the disinformation campaign that had as a primary goal sowing division — Stockton equates all that with a deliberate attempt, over the course of months, to completely dismantle the credibility of our electoral system.

The equation is all the crazier given that, while Hillary herself did put some of the blame for her loss on Russia’s interference, most Democrats blame Jim Comey, the guy whom Trump fired in an attempt to undermine the Russian investigation. Those of us who live(d) in states that Hillary neglected were perfectly happy to blame Hillary’s own mistakes. More importantly, Hillary ceded power with no contest of the results even in closely fought states like Michigan.

This is just one example where Trumpsters excuse their own participation in The Big Lie by turning a bunch of different prongs of reporting on Russia in 2017 — some undoubtedly overblown but much based on real facts about real actions that Trump and his aides really took — into the equivalent of wild hoaxes about efforts to steal the 2020 election.

And it’s not just those who fostered The Big Lie. As I’ve noted, a viral thread earlier this year went further still, blaming January 6 on the Steele dossier (which most Republicans agree was larded with Russian disinformation).

This use of the Russian investigation, the Democratic-paid dossier, and the legitimate reporting on both to rationalize Trump’s actions post-2020 is no accident. That’s one reason I persist in reporting on the dossier: because Paul Manafort came back from a meeting with an Oleg Deripaska associate and encouraged everyone to discredit the Russian investigation by focusing on the dossier. Because it was so full of garbage (some of it placed there at the behest of Russian intelligence, if you believe all the Republican members of Congress to focus on it), it was an easy way to make the real Russian investigation look corrupt to people like Dustin Stockton, to say nothing of the real cover-up disclosed by the investigation.

Before Trump claimed to be the victim of vote fraud, Trump claimed to be the victim of an investigation into the many documented ways in which Trump tried to optimize Russian help to get elected. That claim — that he was the real victim of the Russian investigation — is how Trump trained so many Republicans to put his fate over the fate of the country.

And so as the traditional press turns its attention to the lies that Trump tells to claim he’s a victim, that first lie cannot be forgotten.