Margaret Sullivan: Steve Bannon Might Finally Go to Jail—We Can Only Hope

From a Washington Post media column by Margaret Sullivan headlined “Steve Bannon might finally go to jail. We can only hope.”:

For years, Steve Bannon has been ripping holes in America’s democratic institutions — demonizing the press, spreading lies and hatred of immigrants, revving up an insurrection, flouting the law.

Until now, he’s always gotten away with it. Indicted on a charge of defrauding donors to a private group that claimed to be raising money for Donald Trump’s border wall, he scored a presidential pardon. Accused of registering to vote in Florida, where he did not live, he managed to avoid prosecution.

And along the way, he’s been depicted as a “conservative firebrand” or a “populist guru” by the media he professed to despise. Working relentlessly as presidential aide to destroy and deceive, he even was pictured on the cover of Time magazine as “The Great Manipulator,” looking like Trump’s very own Rasputin.

But now? The tide may have turned.

U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols of Washington, a Trump appointee, appears ready, willing and able to come down hard on Bannon’s flouting of a congressional subpoena last year. After the former Trump counselor offered, at the last possible minute, to testify on his own specific terms before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Nichols summed it up as a “last-ditch attempt to avoid accountability.”And he shredded the arguments of Bannon’s lawyers one after another.

When Bannon lawyer David Schoen complained in the courtroom, “What is the point of going to trial here if there are no defenses?” Nichols ominously suggested that Bannon’s team might want to consider that as they head to trial next week.

The Great Manipulator could even serve some jail time if convicted — as much as two years or, perhaps more likely, as little as 30 days. Criminal contempt of Congress, after all, is just a misdemeanor.

My animus for Bannon comes partly from the way he has helped to turn the public against the reality-based press and the way he has tried to bury truth under an avalanche of lies and misdirection.

In Bannon’s world, the surest way to succeed is distract, deceive and overwhelm the masses with endless supplies of BS. And Trump, clearly, took his counsel.

“The real opposition is the media. Flood the zone with s—” is his credo, as expressed to the writer Michael Lewis. Then you can get away with almost anything.

Or to the New York Times: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Bannon ranted shortly after the 2016 presidential election. “The media is the opposition party.”

Richard Tofel, then the president of ProPublica, quickly tweeted the appropriate retort: “We are not the Opposition. We are just trying to report the truth. And we will not shut up.” Making that point, ProPublica later reported early and often on Bannon’s ties to dark money and on all the suspect activities that resulted in the federal prosecutors charging him with swindling donors.

But Bannon did much more. Early in his tenure with the administration, he reportedly masterminded Trump’s darkly defining catchphrase, “American carnage,” as well as the new president’s executive orders to ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspend refugee programs.

Much more recently — just before the 2020 presidential election — he disparaged the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power. In an audio recording obtained by Mother Jones and made public this week, Bannon sounded celebratory about Trump’s scheme to claim victory, win or lose.

If Trump’s plot to be reinstalled as president prevailed, Bannon forecast: “Trump never has to go to a voter again. He’s gonna fire [Christopher] Wray, the FBI director … He’s gonna say ‘F— you. How about that?’ Because … he’s done his last election. Oh, he’s going to be off the chain — he’s gonna be crazy.”

Then, days before Jan. 6, 2021, Bannon used his podcast to summon deluded and criminal mobs to the gathering storm at the U.S. Capitol with a drumbeat of election lies: “It all comes down to, are we going to affirm the massive landslide of Donald J. Trump? Or are we going to turn over our constitutional republic … to the forces of darkness?”

Whether as Trump’s chief strategist or as the chairman of the far-right Breitbart News or just a guy with a seditious podcast, Bannon has long devoted himself to all the worst causes. So, yes, law-abiding and democracy-defending Americans should hope for a prison term when Bannon’s trial takes place on Monday. He would no doubt try to frame such an outcome as a badge of honor; he was back on his podcast just after Nichols’s ruling, ranting about “going medieval” on his political enemies: “We’re going to savage these people.”

But regardless of his defiant words, a conviction and jail term would always be an appropriately ugly part of Bannon’s uglier legacy. Because of all the Trump-era villains — and, let’s face it, they are legion — Stephen K. Bannon surely is one of the worst.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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