The judge overseeing the New York fraud case against former Trump campaign manager and White House strategist Steve Bannon set a trial date of 24 May 2021, but also recognized that Covid-19 limitations on court proceedings could lead to a change.
“There are only a few courtrooms that are outfitted” to deal with the pandemic, Manhattan federal court judge Analisa Torres said during a video conference on Monday afternoon.
But, she said: “I’m going to be optimistic.”
Bannon attended proceedings, though remotely, visible only as a slate grey icon on a conference screen.
“Mr Bannon, are you on the line?” asked a court clerk.
“Present,” the invisible Bannon responded.
The conference was visible on large screens in the jury assembly room at the downtown Manhattan courthouse where the trial will take place.
Bannon, who worked in the White House in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, was arrested on 20 August on a luxury yacht off the Connecticut coast. He is alleged to have siphoned money from We Build the Wall, an online fundraiser for Trump’s contentious border wall with Mexico.
The Manhattan district attorney alleges that Bannon used a non-profit he controlled to divert “over $1m from the … online campaign, at least some of which he used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses”.
Officials said We Build The Wall raised more than $25m.
Three other men – Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea – are charged. Each faces one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Prosecutors claim the men “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors” who were promised 100% of donations would go to building the wall. Prosecutors also say the defendants made up invoices and bogus “vendor” agreements to cover up their skimming.
Kolfage, Badolato and Shea – who, like Bannon, did not appear visually – pleaded not guilty. Kolfage will remain released pending trial on a $500,000 bond. Badolato and Shea will each remain out on a $250,000 bond.
On Monday, the downtown courthouse was quiet, with just two TV cameras on the sidewalk. it marked a dramatic contrast from Bannon’s first appearance in this case, earlier this month, which ended in theatrics.
Bannon’s attorney then entered a not guilty plea. Just before Bannon stepped out of the building, released on a $5m bond, he tugged off his mask and flipped his stringy hair to the side. He smiled and waved to reporters and photographers, maintaining a triumphant demeanor despite the possibility of decades behind bars.
“This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” he said.
Prosecutors’ concerns about Kolfage’s recent social media posts were also discussed on Monday. Some of Kolfage’s posts have maintained that the case against him is “political”, “an assault on every [We Build the Wall] donors[’] freedom”, a “witch hunt” and an attempt to take “political prisoners”.
In a letter late last week, prosecutors wrote that Kolfage had made “at least a dozen extrajudicial statements about this case on his Facebook account, which has more than 630,000 followers”.
Prosecutors said they were concerned the posts could affect witnesses and alleged victims, “many of whom appear to follow Kolfage’s social media accounts”, and potentially taint a future jury pool.
On Monday, Judge Torres warned the four men against making statements that could affect the impartiality of potential jurors or a fair trial.
“Do you understand, Mr Kolfage?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Yes, your honor.”
The two other men also said they understood.
Harvey Steinberg, Kolfage’s attorney, took issue with prosecutors’ comments about his client’s statements, pointing out that they issued a press release following the arrests, which used the word “fraudsters”.
“It reminds me of the bully who pick[ed] on, if you will, the person they perceived to be the weakest,” Steinberg said.