Steve Bannon Delays Trial by Ghosting His Own Lawyers

Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Lawyers revealed in court on Thursday that far-right media figure Steve Bannon has, for months now, ghosted his legal team—a tactic that has managed to slow down the New York case against him for his role in a scammy nationalist nonprofit that falsely promised to build a U.S.-Mexico wall.

On Thursday, even the state judge overseeing the case called Bannon out on the bald-faced delay tactic. But Justice Juan Merchan relented and still gave Bannon seven weeks to find new attorneys.

Bannon now has until Feb. 28 to find new lawyers to replace the ones he now scorns—like David Schoen, whose spectacular failure in federal court last year led Bannon to a conviction for contempt of Congress in another case.

In court in New York City on Thursday, the judge sparred with Schoen, who tried to help his client by hitting the brakes on the prosecution while arguing that Bannon doesn’t even have to provide a good reason for cutting him off.

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“There is a direct breakdown in communications, so Mr. Bannon and his lawyers don't communicate about this case directly,” Schoen revealed.

But Merchan saw through that defense strategy, citing legal precedent that makes clear a person can pick their own lawyer but not use that to setback a prosecution.

“Although a defendant has the constitutionally guaranteed right to be defended by counsel of his own choosing, this right is qualified in the sense that a defendant may not employ such right as a means to delay judicial proceedings,” Merchan read from a 1980 state appellate case.“Is this being done to delay official proceedings?” Merchan asked Schoen. Bannon’s lawyer demurred.

The courtroom soon devolved into a heated match, as the cool-headed judge had no patience for Schoen’s usual theatrics and lectures. At one point, Merchan cut off Schoen mid-sentence and ordered him and other lawyers to approach the bench for a private discussion—one that clearly ended badly.

As they walked away from the judge, Merchan scoffed.

"I'm sorry you feel like you were dragged into this courthouse," the judge said sarcastically. "You and your client will be treated the same as any other defendant in this courthouse."

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Bannon, a former banker and current right-wing media personality, advised former President Donald Trump and spent half a year as his White House chief strategist. Since then, he’s been mired in legal troubles stemming from his conspiracy-driven, anti-democratic activities. The Senate Intelligence Committee wanted him investigated by the feds over what they thought was his untruthful testimony about Russian interference in the 2016 election to get Trump into power. The Department of Justice successfully prosecuted him in July for his refusal to testify before the House Jan. 6 Committee investigating his role in fomenting the attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021 by Trump-loyal insurrectionists.

Bannon briefly faced federal charges for lining his own pockets by scamming MAGA diehards into funding a doomed GoFundMe project to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to keep out migrants. But Trump pardoned his friend and made the case go away.

The New York County District Attorney’s Office has been selectively reviving cases that conveniently disappeared during the Trump administration, and in September, the office announced a grand jury indictment against Bannon for that same case. This time, however, the case uses state charges against Bannon for duping New Yorkers into funding the wall. Bannon is accused of lying about the $15 million collected for “We Build The Wall,” and he was criminally charged with money laundering, scheme to defraud, and conspiracy.

On Thursday, prosecutors and defense lawyers argued over evidence in the case. Justin S. Weddle, who represents the “We Build the Wall” nonprofit, complained about how the DA’s office had turned over too much information, drowning them in documents that couldn’t possibly be reviewed in time for a trial.

Bannon’s lawyers, Schoen of Alabama and John W. Mitchell of New York, used it as an opportunity to try and detach themselves from the case. But Merchan wouldn’t let them, refusing to let any person charged with a crime in his courtroom remain “without counsel.”

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Mitchell pleaded to be let go, saying that the way Bannon will only talk to him through a third person “is indeed the most awkward situation,” stressing that “we're not providing effective assistance of counsel.”

But Merchan wouldn’t have it, forcing them to stick around for now and setting a strict deadline for Bannon to find new lawyers.

Dan Passeser, an assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, warned that the right-wing media personality was undermining the law enforcement effort by “seeking to hit pause indefinitely” with his lawyer swapping games.

“There will be delay. The extent of delay we'll have to wait and see,” the judge acknowledged.

In recent weeks, Merchan has proved to be less and less tolerant of the utter incompetence and obstruction of justice that has become commonplace in the era of Trump politics. During the Trump Organization’s tax fraud trial last month, he ripped into corporate defense lawyers for wasting time and unsealed documents showing how the company slowed down the investigation by lying. And on Tuesday, while sentencing Trump Organization finance executive Allen Weisselberg, Merchan berated him over the greedy way he cheated taxes and faked business records.

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