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‘Conmen, grifters and criminals’: why is Trump’s circle so at odds with the law? | US news

To live outside the law, Bob Dylan sang, you must be honest. It also helps, apparently, to stay as clear as possible from Donald Trump, whose inner circle of advisers has suffered steady attrition since 2017, through a series of encounters with the criminal justice system.

On Thursday, the former White House strategist Steve Bannon became the latest Trump intimate to be taken into custody, when the Chinese-owned yacht on which he was sunburning was boarded by agents of the US Postal Service.

Bannon was accused of defrauding people who gave tens of millions to a private fund which existed, Bannon claimed, to finance the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico. The real purpose of that fund and others, federal prosecutors say, was to cover the “luxury” lifestyle expenses of Bannon and his fellow defendants.

“This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” Bannon declared outside a Manhattan courthouse, proclaiming his innocence.

Depending on how – and whom – you count, Bannon was the seventh former close Trump adviser to be arrested, face charges, plead guilty or to be convicted of a crime since the 45th president took office.

Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (convicted: tax fraud, bank fraud) is in home confinement due to Covid-19; former adviser Roger Stone (convicted: obstruction, false statements) received a presidential commutation; former adviser Michael Cohen (guilty plea: campaign finance crimes, lying to Congress) is in home confinement; former national security adviser Michael Flynn (guilty plea: lying to the FBI) is awaiting a ruling on a request to dismiss charges; former adviser Rick Gates (guilty plea: lying to investigators) has completed a prison term; and former adviser George Papadopoulos (guilty plea: lying) has completed a prison term.

“I believe it unprecedented in any US administration for so many of the closest circle of persons around the president to have been shown to be conmen, grifters and base criminals,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the team that convicted the Gambino family boss John Gotti, in an email.

“While previous administrations had their share of those trying to personally profit and those willing to break the law to serve the political interests of the president, what is unique about the Trump administration is the large number of people in direct contact with the president, often for years, who are revealed to be out-and-out fraudsters for whom crime is apparently part of their lifestyle and character.”

As his re-election campaign enters full swing, Trump has made an effort to brand himself as the president of “law and order”. But Trump himself has at times appeared to sail within dangerous distance of criminal legal hazards.

During impeachment proceedings that straddled the turn of this year, Democrats and the Republican senator Mitt Romney voted to remove Trump for abuse of power.

Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for an arraignment hearing on mortgage fraud charges in Manhattan in June 2019.



Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for an arraignment hearing on mortgage fraud charges in Manhattan in June 2019. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

Robert Mueller detailed nearly a dozen potential instances of obstruction of justice by Trump during the Russia investigation, though the special counsel did not propose criminal charges.

Before that, Trump paid $2m in fines and closed his family’s “charity” foundation, admitting it had used donations to pay campaign and business expenses.

The prosecutors in that case, in the New York state attorney general’s office, are currently investigating Trump’s banking and tax conduct, while federal prosecutors in New York – the ones bringing charges against Bannon – are also looking at alleged graft by Trump’s inauguration committee.

The Manhattan district attorney is investigating Trump’s tax records, as are multiple congressional committees.

Trump says he is a victim of a witch-hunt by politically motivated prosecutors. His critics say that in fact the full scope of Trump’s alleged criminal conduct is unknown because he is using the power of the presidency to block details from coming to light.

Continued arrests of former associates could at some stage pose a threat to Trump himself, if one decided to cooperate with prosecutors against Trump, legal analysts have said. But past speculation about the dangers of such a “flipped” witness have not been borne out – in part perhaps because Trump has demonstrated a willingness to pardon his friends for their wrongdoing, decreasing any incentive to “flip”.

Consider Trump’s clemency for Stone; the justice department’s efforts to drop the case against Flynn, which the courts have not yet granted; attorney general William Barr’s sudden removal of prosecutors seen as threatening to Trump; and Trump’s deployment of the might of the justice department to stop his tax records being handed to state authorities and Congress, in a case that reached the supreme court.

Barr and Trump have denied using the levers of American justice to prosecute the president’s enemies and protect his friends. But evidence-heavy charging documents against figures in Trump’s orbit keep stacking up.

“Why this unprecedented situation?” said Cotter, now a Chicago-based officer with the Greensfelder law firm.

“My almost 40 years working in criminal law has taught me that criminals of a particular type tend to associate with other criminals of the same type. There is a comfort level and mutual understanding in such associations.

“So when I see a swarm of conmen buzzing around one particular man, in this case Trump, my experience suggests that it is because they recognize one of their own. And in selecting them to be his confidants, the president also recognized kindred spirits.”

It just keeps happening. But it has not happened to Trump, yet.



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