You can say a lot of things about Steve Bannon, but you can’t say he’s secretive about his intentions.
As he arrived at the FBI’s Washington, DC field office on Monday to surrender himself on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress (for ignoring a subpoena from the ouse select committee investigating the 6 January insurrection), the former Trump adviser took no questions from the throng of reporters who’d arrived to see the spectacle. But there was one person with a camera and microphone who Bannon did speak to on his way to Justice Department custody. He looked squarely into the lens of a camera recording for his War Room podcast and recorded a message to his listeners in which he told them that they were “taking down the Biden regime”.
When he emerged from the E Barrett Prettyman courthouse a number of hours later, he said the Justice Department’s prosecution of his case would be “the misdemeanor from hell” and vowed to “go on the offense”.
For the uninitiated – or those of you whose last memory of the slovenly ex-naval officer was him being unceremoniously defenestrated from his White House post after the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – Bannon’s podcast has been a vehicle for him to work his way back into the good graces of “mainstream” Trumpworld. It was initially launched to counter-program his former boss’s first impeachment trial, but when the Covid pandemic hit he and then-co-host Jason Miller quickly rebranded it to defend Trump’s handling of the virus that has now killed nearly a million Americans.
The self-styled “America First” programme – which is simulcast on the little-watched right-wing Real America’s Voice cable network – is ironically lousy with foreigners. After Miller departed to help Trump’s re-election and election subversion efforts, Bannon replaced him with Raheem Kassam, a British expat who once helmed the UK edition of Breitbart News. And the entire production is thought to be bankrolled by Guo Wengui, the Chinese-born Bannon patron whose yacht was the scene of the former Trump adviser’s previous arrest on fraud charges (those particular charges were dropped after an 11th-hour pardon from Trump).
Bannon – who once famously described himself as a “Leninist” who wants to “bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment” – has largely been an object of ridicule among Democrats since he lost his White House job and became the subject of tweets from the ex-president deriding him as “sloppy Steve” while denouncing him for being a major source for author Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.
In the intervening years between his departure from public employment rolls and his second indictment, he tried starting an academy of sorts for right-wing culture warriors in a former Italian monastery and fomenting a Eurosceptic, anti-democratic bloc in the European parliament known as “The Movement”. Both projects received rather tepid receptions abroad, and his first arrest on fraud charges only added to the impression that he was no longer someone to be taken seriously.
But Democrats who are still high off the hog from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure victory lap on Monday should probably start paying attention to him again.
So far, Bannon is the only prominent Trumpworld figure to face criminal charges for anything having to do with the riot intended to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s electoral college win. And just as many of the people who are now seeing the inside of jail cells for their conduct that day are claiming to be persecuted political prisoners, so too is Bannon. After his initial court appearance on Monday, he accused Biden of having “ordered” his prosecution when he told reporters that defying Congress should come with consequences (Biden later walked back the remarks) and appears to be positioning himself as a martyr for Donald Trump.
As Trump contemplates whether to mount a third run for the presidency in 2024, he will be looking to staff a campaign – and perhaps an administration – with no one but the most “loyal” to him personally, qualifications be damned. Democrats and the few Republicans who’ve supported the work of the committee Bannon is ignoring say that his indictment was a victory for the rule of law. But for Bannon – and Trump – it’s an audition.
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