President Donald Trump attempted to distance himself from the indictment of Steve Bannon on Thursday, referring to Bannon, formerly his top adviser, as though he’d been just a random short-tenured staffer.
Trump told reporters that he felt “very badly,” but quickly added: “I haven’t been dealing with him for a long period of time.”
“He was involved in our campaign. He worked for Goldman Sachs. He worked for a lot of companies,” Trump said. “But he was involved likewise in our campaign and for a small part of the administration, very early on. I haven’t been dealing with him at all.”
Trump is not giving a full and accurate account of Bannon’s role.
It’s true that Bannon worked at Goldman Sachs ― in the 1980s. But more recently, he was chairman of the conspiracy-laden site Breitbart News. Under his leadership, the site championed Trump and his agenda.
In 2016, Bannon became chief executive of Trump’s campaign, and is widely credited as the architect of the 2016 win. His nationalist positions became central to Trump’s agenda.
Bannon stayed close to Trump in the White House. The president gave him the newly created role of chief strategist and senior counselor, granting him enormous clout in the administration.
Bannon’s association with the alt-right movement became a problem for the White House after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
“Mr. Bannon came on very late,” Trump told reporters at the time, once again trying to distance himself from his chief strategist. “I like him, he’s a good man, he is not a racist, I can tell you that. But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.”
A few days later, Bannon was gone, just seven months into Trump’s presidency.
As recently as last year, Trump tweeted about how much he liked Bannon.
Federal officials arrested Bannon Thursday after a grand jury indicted him for allegedly defrauding donors to an online fundraiser that billed itself as an effort to raise money to build Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bannon allegedly conspired to cheat these donors out of their money by promising to set aside their contributions exclusively for the wall. In reality, prosecutors say, he took about $1 million to pay off his own personal expenses.
Trump has a pattern of downplaying his relationships with people who were close to him once they become politically inconvenient.
He tried to distance himself from his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who became a target of investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer referred to Manafort in March 2017 as a man “who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
“I know Mr. Manafort — I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, but I know him,” Trump said in August of that year. “He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time, relatively short period of time.”
A few months later, in October, Manafort was indicted on charges including conspiracy against the United States.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” Trump tweeted at the time.
Similarly, when Roger Stone was arrested last year on criminal charges stemming from Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election, Trump again pretended that his longtime friend wasn’t really all that close to him.
“First of all, Roger Stone didn’t work on the campaign, except way, way at the beginning long before we’re talking about,” Trump said after the arrest.
“Roger is somebody that I’ve always liked, but a lot of people like Roger, some people probably don’t like Roger, but Roger Stone’s somebody I’ve always liked,” he added.
For years, Trump also liked to brag about his relationship with Vladimir Putin, saying he knew him “very well.” But as the 2016 campaign heated up, and Trump’s relationship with Russia came under more scrutiny, Trump suddenly began insisting he didn’t know the Russian president at all.