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Trump pardons Steve Bannon after ugly falling out early in his presidency

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief stragetist, speaks with reporters in New York after pleading not guilty to charges that he defrauded donors to an online fundraising campaign to build a southern border wall. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)

President Trump has pardoned Stephen K. Bannon, the firebrand architect of his 2016 campaign who was charged last year with defrauding donors to a private fundraising effort for construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, the White House announced early Wednesday.

Trump approved Bannon’s pardon late Tuesday, after days of frantic deliberations. Some aides said as recently as Monday night that the move appeared unlikely. Trump vacillated throughout the day Tuesday, and even after he said he was going to sign off on the pardon, it remained unclear for some time that he would actually do so, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

The pardon for Bannon — who was among those to lead Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and later was made the White House’s top political strategist — marks the latest example of Trump using his presidential pardon power to end the legal woes of his allies.

Bannon and three others had been charged by federal prosecutors in Manhattan with making fraudulent representations as they solicited donations for a fundraising campaign called “We Build the Wall.” Despite making claims that they would take no compensation as part of the campaign, prosecutors alleged in a 23-page indictment that Bannon received more than $1 million through a nonprofit entity he controlled and sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to another organizer, Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage.

Steve Bannon charged with defrauding donors in private effort to raise money for Trump’s border wall

The campaign was supported by several of Trump’s allies, and it raised more than $25 million, prosecutors said. During his run for the presidency, Trump had repeatedly promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and claimed it would be funded by Mexico. After his election, he sparred with Congress over whether U.S. taxpayers should fund the effort, as he failed to get Mexico to agree to provide funds.

Trump did not pardon Kolfage and the others charged alongside Bannon, according to the White House list. Bannon had pleaded not guilty in the case and was out on bond awaiting trial.

President Trump on Jan. 19 pardoned his former adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who was charged with fraud in a fundraising effort for a border wall. (Video: Reuters)

It is unclear how broad the pardon is. The White House announcement said only that Bannon was granted a full pardon, and “Prosecutors pursued Mr. Bannon with charges related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project. Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen.”

Separately, the FBI has been investigating a different business venture in which Bannon was involved with Chinese businessman Guo Wengui. Investors in the venture claimed they had been defrauded, though no one has been charged with any crimes.

The probe is aimed at a social media company called GTV Media Group, which Guo has said raised $300 million from investors. Some of those investors say they have since been interviewed by the FBI.

In a statement to The Washington Post last year, Guo said that all of the funds raised for the company are “intact” and that most of GTV’s investors are satisfied and that the company followed rules set out by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Though Guo had previously touted Bannon’s role, he said Bannon had been removed as chairman of the board after his arrest and played no part in raising funds for the company.

Bannon was known as a provocateur during Trump’s 2016 campaign and during his brief stint in the White House. He came up with such ideas as bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to a debate after damaging audio emerged of Trump suggesting he could sexually assault women. Before working for Trump’s campaign, he had promoted many of the same ideas that Trump espoused via the conservative news site he had run, Breitbart.

Bannon was ousted as the White House’s chief strategist after just seven months because of clashes with other officials, particularly Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. In early 2018, Trump lashed out at Bannon for comments Bannon made to Michael Wolff for his book “Fire and Fury.” In the book, Bannon had criticized Trump, his family and White House operations.

But since then, Bannon has slowly come back into the Trump orbit. He publicly defended Trump during the president’s first impeachment, and he hosted a pro-Trump podcast with Jason Miller, who worked as a 2020 Trump campaign strategist, until last year. Bannon drew headlines for calling for coronavirus task force member Anthony S. Fauci to be beheaded. Soon after that, Bannon’s lawyer asked to withdraw from the case.

Trump spoke to Bannon last summer about the presidential campaign, but it was a brief conversation, according to people familiar with the matter. Bannon had been conferring regularly with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer who was leading the effort to challenge the election’s results, according to people familiar with their conversations. On his podcast, Bannon had urged Michigan Republicans to block certification of their state’s results.

“You can’t certify Michigan,” he said. “You don’t have to put up a slate of electors.”

After Bannon’s arrest in August, Trump had said he felt “very badly,” but also seemed to try to distance himself from his former chief strategist and the We Build the Wall project. The president said then that he had not dealt with Bannon “for a very long period of time,” and that the private fundraising effort for the wall was “something I very much thought was inappropriate to be doing.”

“I don’t like that project,” the president said. “I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.”

How a veteran’s idea to solicit donations for a border wall won over Trump supporters — and produced conspiracy charges

Still, those involved in the project had close ties to the administration. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. was a guest at a symposium hosted by the We Build the Wall group in New Mexico in 2019, and he praised the organization as “private enterprise at its finest.” Amanda Miller, spokeswoman for Trump Jr., has said previously the speech was his only involvement with the group.

“His previous praise of the group was based on what he was led to believe about their supposed intention to help build the wall on our southern border and if he and others were deceived, the group deserves to be held accountable for their actions,” she said in a statement after Bannon’s arrest.

The group’s other advisers include Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state known for his hard-line views of immigration and close ties to the Trump administration; Erik Prince, a conservative activist and defense contractor close to Bannon; former congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.); and former Major League Baseball star Curt Schilling.