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Throughout the trial of Steve Bannon, I got the distinct sense that he was, well, sort of bummed out by the experience. Not so much because he got himself indicted and convicted for contempt of Congress and soon, barring an appellate miracle, will be heading to federal lockup. More because it just wasn’t as much of a joyride as he had hoped.
Leading up to the trial, Bannon went hogwild, using his indictment as a launching point for all manner of disjointed rants against Democrats, and DOJ, and the January 6 Committee. He pronounced that his case would be the “misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden.” I’ll hand it to Bannon here: “misdemeanor from hell” is a punchy turn of phrase (though what the heck do Pelosi or Biden have to do with anything?). I won’t do Bannon the favor of reprinting his predictable stemwinders on his podcast and on the courthouse steps. He plainly relished the attention; one almost got the sense he was enjoying his status as a criminal defendant. Hey, it’s all about relevance, right?
Inside the courtroom, though, it was a different story. Bannon had hoped to raise all manner of legally irrelevant defenses: it’s a political witch hunt, I’m being targeted, the Committee is illegitimate. But Judge Carl Nichols – who was appointed to the federal bench in 2019 by Donald Trump, and who clerked early in his career for Justice Clarence Thomas – had zero patience for Bannon’s nonsense, shutting down his bogus defenses before trial began. Upon getting his clock cleaned in these pretrial rulings, Bannon’s lawyer moaned, “What’s the point in going to trial here if there are no defenses?” Indeed. (Note to young lawyers and law students out there: don’t ever say this out loud, in front of the judge and your client and the media. Try to have a bit of a poker face.)
Bannon did go to trial, and it was just no fun at all. He didn’t get to rail about politics or dramatically confront the Committee’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, or turn the proceeding into a big, silly circus. Bannon didn’t even take the stand in his own defense, or present any evidence whatsoever. (This is not as rare as it may sound; defendants commonly choose to offer no case and to argue that the prosecution has failed to carry its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.)
I instinctively recoil anytime somebody says a trial will be “easy”; real practitioners know there’s no such thing as a slam-dunk verdict. Juries are comprised of people, and people are inherently unpredictable. But I must say – this case wound up being easy as heck for DOJ. The prosecution’s case, in a sentence: Congress subpoenaed Bannon, and he flipped them the bird. The defense: well, nothing. The jury came back with its verdict in just about three hours. This wasn’t the “misdemeanor from hell” for DOJ; this was a cake party for the feds.
Now Bannon will go to federal prison for at least thirty days, no matter what. Contempt of Congress is the rare misdemeanor that carries a mandatory minimum sentence. Sure, Bannon can appeal, but I don’t see much chance this verdict gets thrown out, despite his lawyer’s boisterous claim that he has a “bulletproof appeal.” And hey, who knows, maybe Bannon will get pardoned again, like the time he dodged an SDNY fraud indictment when Trump pardoned him on his final day in office in 2021. (Hold on while I check who currently holds the White House… ok, forget about that pardon idea.)
We need to take a quick detour to tell the remarkable tale of the last person, before Bannon, who was tried in the United States for contempt of Congress. In the early 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, an EPA official named Rita Lavelle was removed under suspicious circumstances as head of a toxic waste disposal program. (Kids, take my word for it: this scandal was perfectly on-brand for the 80’s.) When Lavelle received a subpoena from Congress about her removal, she refused to talk. So Congress held her in contempt, DOJ indicted and took her to trial – and the jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict, apparently based on Lavelle’s claim that she was sick and depressed, so was incapable of responding to the subpoena. Hey, it’s a better defense than Bannon’s.
Not content to thank her lucky stars for beating the contempt case, however, Lavelle proceeded to get herself convicted for lying to Congress. She falsely claimed she did not know about a former private employer’s practice of dumping toxic waste in the Stringfellow Acid Pits of California. (Like I said: very 80’s.) Lavelle was sentenced to six months behind bars.
Do you think she was done? Do you? Because if you do, then you clearly don’t know Rita Lavelle. Two decades later, she was at it again when she falsified financial records of a private company linked to an environmental cleanup dispute. Lavelle went to trial, got convicted, and received a fifteen-month sentence.
She’s still alive by the way. Although she’s 74 years old, I wouldn’t count her out for one final conviction before she calls it quits. (Ms. Lavelle, if you’re out there and want to do an interview, hit me up at email@example.com.)
In the end, Steve Bannon learned that being a federal criminal defendant is nothing like blathering on a podcast or ranting on some extremist social media platform. Federal trials are about the facts and the law, and a strong judge will eviscerate the bullcrap before it even gets started, as Judge Nichols did here.
So, no, Bannon didn’t have the rollicking time that he seemingly anticipated. And now – like his spiritual godmother, Ms. Lavelle — Bannon has finally gotten what he tried so mightily to bring on himself, and what he so richly deserves.