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Opinion: Bannon prison stint is a reminder of what another Trump term could mean

Opinion by Jill Filipovic

(CNN) — Steve Bannon, key adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and chief strategist in the Trump White House, reported to prison on Monday after refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena related to his actions on January 6, 2021, when a violent pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol. He is only the latest Trump ally to face serious legal trouble; the president himself was recently found guilty of 34 felonies.

Bannon’s crime — flouting a subpoena — isn’t as dramatic as many of the other allegations related to January 6, which left several people dead and remains a dark stain on America’s once-proud tradition of peaceful transfers of power. And Bannon was a particularly bad actor, frothing up outrage over the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and predicting on January 5 that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” He added, “It’s all converging, and now we’re on, as they say, the point of attack.”

Congress, understandably, had questions. Bannon, for all of his bluster on his “War Room” podcast, was too cowardly and self-interested to answer them.

Bannon said he was advised by his lawyers not to comply with the congressional subpoena, and that he should wait for the courts to decide Trump’s executive privilege claims. The former president has argued that presidents essentially have unlimited powers — that even criminal acts are not crimes if a president commits them. And on Monday, the Supreme Court agreed that presidents enjoy “absolute immunity” from prosecution for official acts they undertake, a decision that may very well gut any attempt to hold the president accountable for the crimes of Jan. 6.

In a dissent signed by the three liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor noted that the court’s theory of absolute presidential immunity would apply to a president who “Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival” or “Organizes a military coup to hold onto power” or “Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon.” The concept of absolute immunity, she wrote, is an affront to democracy: “In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law.”

That’s a particularly frightening prospect, considering some of Trump’s behavior after the decision was handed down. Notably, he amplified posts on social media calling for a televised military tribunal for former GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who was vice chairwoman of a committee investigating the insurrection, and the jailing of elected officials including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

The fears expressed by Sotomayor reflect precisely the kind of setup Bannon has long advocated: a strongman leader who will disband the administrative state, and stock the entire federal government with authoritarian loyalists. (Bannon recently said there should be 3,000 foot soldiers ready to go to “get all the federal contracts” and “get MAGA in there” as “a hostile takeover of the apparatus.”)

The president has said he would expand his executive authority to have more control over parts of the government that have historically been allowed significant independence, and his allies have outlined specific plans for some agencies — the Federal Reserve, for example. The outcome could be a president who can use these agencies to carry out his agenda, whether that’s ordering the Fed to adjust rates to please the public in an election year even if they devastate the economy long-term, or using the powers of the DOJ to prosecute his political enemies, or ordering the FCC to pull licenses from or otherwise constrain news networks that report critically on him.

Bannon’s incarceration, and what the latest Supreme Court decision may mean for him and for Trump, brings some necessary perspective to the now days-long panic over Biden’s poor debate performance. Bannon is only the latest Trump sycophant to go to jail or face prosecution; when you zoom out and look at who Trump has surrounded himself with, it looks a whole lot like a ragtag gang of grifters, criminals and villains. That seems objectively worse than “the president is old and fumbles his words.” But because the public is at this point so used to the broader malfeasance of Trump World, his campaign executive and top adviser going to prison is largely met with a shrug.

The fact that Bannon was ever let within 100 yards of the Oval Office, let alone key in bringing a president to power and shape his agenda, should make every American question why, exactly, Trump should ever walk back through those vaunted doors. Bannon’s sentence is a necessary reminder of just how ugly and dangerous Trump’s first term was — and how much worse round two might get.

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