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Former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon indicted on New York state charges

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon was indicted on New York State charges. He's accused of lying to people who contributed to a nonprofit set up to build a portion of a wall along the southern border. Now, this is the second time that Bannon has been indicted for crimes related to that charity, but the first time around, he was pardoned by former President Trump. NPR's Andrea Bernstein was in court today and joins us now. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so what exactly is Bannon charged with doing this time around?

BERNSTEIN: So he's charged with money laundering, conspiracy and scheme to defraud. Basically, the indictment says he masterminded the scheme whereby he and the people who worked with him would market the charity We Build the Wall to donors by saying that, quote, "not a penny" of the donations would go to salaries; they'd all go to the wall, itself. The co-conspirators, the alleged co-conspirators, said this would be, quote, "the most talked about media narrative ever". But instead of taking not a penny for salaries, the indictment says, Bannon directed a scheme where some of the money was diverted to a different nonprofit, which secretly did pay the director a salary. Prosecutors obtained text messages by Bannon. One of them said, no deals I don't approve. Significantly, the case did not charge Bannon with stealing the money for himself, as the federal case did. The prosecutors said that was for jurisdictional reasons.

CHANG: Jurisdictional reasons. OK, well, if we will remember, Bannon was campaign manager for Trump in 2016 before going to the White House. I'm curious, does this case allege anything about Trump?

BERNSTEIN: Not as alleged. In fact, Donald Trump's name is not in the indictment, Bannon wasn't working for him at the time. And Trump's name came up only once at the press conference today, where Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg mentioned the Manhattan case began after Bannon was indicted for the same scheme by federal prosecutors before, as Bragg says, Bannon received a presidential pardon from former President Trump. But there was a whiff that Bannon's proximity to Trump gave him a sense that he would not be held accountable for his crimes. Attorney General Letitia James explained the decision to prosecute Bannon locally this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LETITIA JAMES: Regular, everyday Americans play by these rules, and yet too often, in powerful, political interest, they ignore these rules. And Steve Bannon stands out as a perfect example of this blatant inequality.

CHANG: Well, Andrea, you were in court today. What happened when Bannon appeared before the judge?

BERNSTEIN: The appearance was brief. Bannon entered the court with his hands cuffed behind his back and said almost nothing, other than he was aware he had to be present for future court appearances. He left it to his attorney to say that he was pleading not guilty. The main event of the court hearing was when prosecutors said Bannon needed to turn over any passports, passport cards and not apply for any passports from the U.S. or any foreign country. The prosecutors referred to Bannon's, quote, "prior history of disobeying lawful mandates". And that refers to yet another case, his conviction this summer in a federal case of contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with information requests from the House January 6 committee.

CHANG: And real quick, what is Bannon saying about all of this so far?

BERNSTEIN: Bannon said he would not back down outside of court, and his lawyer added that he would fight the charges, and he predicted Bannon's contempt conviction would be overturned on appeal.

CHANG: That is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thank you so much, Andrea.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Bernstein