NEW YORK – If the recent firing of the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan was intended to quell criminal investigations into President Donald Trump's close associates, as some have accused, federal prosecutors in New York appear to have missed the memo.
Thursday's arrest of Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, served as a stark reminder that no one who has been within the president's inner circle is automatically immune from federal scrutiny.
Bannon, 66, and three others are charged with defrauding online donors in the name of helping build the president’s cherished southern border wall. Bannon pleaded not guilty at a hearing Thursday in Manhattan.
The indictment came just two months after the abrupt dismissal of Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who had overseen several investigations with tentacles into Trump's orbit — including one involving the business dealings of Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney.
The same office prosecuted former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen for campaign finance crimes, as well as two Giuliani associates tied to the investigation that led to Trump's impeachment investigation in December. Giuliani himself has not been charged with any crime.
Berman's unceremonious removal — decried by some critics as a “Friday night massacre” in June — fueled longstanding concerns among Democratic lawmakers that the Justice Department has become politicized under Attorney General William Barr.
But the wire fraud and money laundering charges against Bannon “confirm the ongoing professional independence” of the Southern District of New York, said Bruce Green, a former prosecutor in the office.
The Manhattan prosecutors' office, known as SDNY, has long been nicknamed the “Sovereign District of New York” for its independence from Washington politics. The office, older than the Justice Department itself, has been home to famous mob trials, terrorism prosecutions and, increasingly, probes involving Trump's allies.
“It shows that the Trump administration cannot fully protect the president’s former associates from federal criminal prosecution simply by firing U.S. attorneys like Geoffrey Berman who honor their responsibility to seek impartial justice,” said Green, who now directs the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at the Fordham University School of Law.
Green said in June that Berman's firing “certainly wasn’t a routine decision, and the only fair inference is that there are some cases where the office is proceeding too independently.”
The charges against Bannon came as Trump himself faced renewed legal perils, as a federal judge rejected Trump's latest bid to shield his tax returns from a state grand jury investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney.
Trump, who is appealing the ruling, blasted the subpoena as “the most disgusting witch hunt in the history of our country” — a refrain he has used to deride several criminal cases targeting him and his associates. He has criticized many of the criminal cases as politically motivated.
The president also sought to distance himself from Bannon on Thursday, saying he knew nothing about the “We Build The Wall” fundraiser. Bannon served as chief strategist during the early days of Trump's administration but clashed with other top advisers and was pushed out after less than a year.
Trump's frequent attacks on federal law enforcement — including his feud with former FBI Director James Comey and his scorn for special investigator Robert Mueller — have not prevented some of his closest associates from being hauled away in handcuffs.
Berman refused to leave his post before ensuring he would be succeeded — at least in the interim — by Audrey Strauss, one of his most trusted lieutenants. Strauss leaned into the role, soon announcing headline-grabbing charges against Ghislaine Maxwell, the former girlfriend of deceased financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The prosecution of Bannon, meanwhile, “shows once again that SDNY is intent upon continuing its work without being influenced by politics,” said Jennifer Rodgers, another former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who now lectures at Columbia Law School.
“I think the public owes a debt of gratitude to Geoff Berman for his fortitude in standing up to Bill Barr’s attempts to take control of SDNY,” Rodgers added. “I doubt we would be seeing this charge today if Barr had succeeded.”