The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Each of the three people who led Trump’s 2016 campaign has now faced criminal charges

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was charged Aug. 20, 2020 with defrauding donors to an online fundraising campaign to build a border wall. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

The first time one of the people leading Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign faced criminal charges was in March of that year. It was not the last time.

Back then, it was Corey Lewandowski, who was running point on Trump’s electoral efforts. He was arrested on misdemeanor battery charges after he grabbed a Breitbart reporter’s arm after a speech at a Trump property in Florida. He and Trump vigorously denied that Lewandowski had touched reporter Michelle Fields at all, denials echoed and amplified by allies in the conservative media — including from Fields’s own outlet. Video produced by the Trump property, however, later showed that Fields’s allegations were accurate. The charges against Lewandowski were dropped.

At the time, it was a remarkable event. The campaign manager of a leading presidential candidate accused of assaulting a reporter? For another candidate, the result would have been a quick termination. But Lewandowski worked for Trump, and, over time, his would be the least problematic brush with the law of all of Trump’s campaign managers.

On Thursday, the third person to lead Trump’s campaign, Stephen K. Bannon, was arrested on federal fraud charges. He’s alleged to have been part of a scheme that redirected private donations intended for building a privately financed wall on the border with Mexico to himself and others. He’s charged, in other words, with having warped Trump’s 2016 calls for a wall on the border (paid for by Mexico) into a personal enrichment scheme.

These are allegations that will be tested in a court of law, and Bannon is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. That’s not the case for Paul Manafort, the second person to lead Trump’s campaign, who is under house arrest after being released from prison out of concern about the coronavirus pandemic.

In March 2019, Manafort was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after being convicted or pleading guilty to a broad array of charges including bank and tax fraud, witness tampering and conspiracy against the United States. The charges Manafort faced stemmed in part from an investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which dug into his business practices and questioned his ties to Russian political interests. On Tuesday, those connections earned more scrutiny with the release of a bipartisan Senate committee report documenting Manafort’s sharing of Trump campaign material with a colleague linked to Russian intelligence.

The Mueller inquiry led to criminal charges against other people linked to Trump and his campaign.

Rick Gates served the campaign as deputy campaign chairman and, after the election, worked for Trump’s inaugural committee. Gates, who had worked with Manafort for years, was similarly charged with financial crimes and conspiracy. He agreed to cooperate with investigators and was sentenced to 45 days in jail last year.

The president’s longtime adviser Roger Stone — who both the Mueller and Senate reports indicated was in regular contact with Trump during the campaign — was sentenced to prison this year after being convicted on seven counts of witness tampering and lying to investigators. Trump commuted Stone’s sentence in July.

Trump’s adviser and first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was arrested in 2017 on a charge that he misled investigators about conversations he had had with Russia’s ambassador during Trump’s transition. The Justice Department later tried to withdraw the charge, despite Flynn’s admitting culpability. That request spurred a legal fight that is still underway.

Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen went to prison for tax evasion and fraud, as well as for lying to congressional investigators about his efforts on Trump’s behalf to do business in Russia in 2015 and 2016. Cohen also pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations for his role in helping Trump bury allegations that the then-presidential candidate had engaged in extramarital affairs with an adult film actress and a former Playboy model.

It's worth noting that Cohen's pleas on those hush-money payments also implicated Trump.

Other people less closely linked to Trump have similarly faced criminal charges by the federal government or Mueller’s team. Alex van der Zwaan, an associate of Manafort’s and Gates’s, served time in jail and was deported. George Papadopoulos, who was an adviser to Trump’s campaign, served time for lying to investigators. That associate of Manafort’s who was linked to Russian intelligence, Konstantin Kilimnik, has an outstanding warrant centered on alleged obstruction of justice. Two employees of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani were indicted in October on campaign finance violations. Giuliani himself is reportedly the subject of a federal investigation.

One takeaway from the Bannon indictment, though, is this: Each of the three people primarily responsible for helping shepherd Trump into the White House has, at some point since he announced his candidacy in June 2015, faced criminal charges. And those three people constitute less than half of the close Trump allies to have pleaded guilty to or been indicted on or convicted of criminal charges.

Last month, Trump was asked about his decision to reshuffle the leadership of his reelection team. He took the opportunity to praise both Lewandowski and Bannon.

“We have Corey, and we have all the people,” Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “And, actually, Steve Bannon’s been much better not being involved. He says the greatest president ever. I mean, he’s saying things that I said, ‘Let’s keep Steve out there, he’s doing a good job.’ ”

“But,” he added, “they’re all being — they’re all involved.”


This article originally referred to Bannon as Trump's campaign manager. He was the campaign chief executive.