'Team of felons': Pardoned criminals, conspiracy theorists backing Trump's 2024 run

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Michael Flynn and Roger Stone are spending time with former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Mike Lindell is warming up the Trump rally crowd and Steve Bannon is plotting election strategy with Donald Trump Jr. on his show.

Paul Manafort and Corey Lewandowski may be back in the fold too, and far-right firebrand Laura Loomer nearly joined Trump’s campaign as some of the most controversial figures in his orbit over the last few years rally around the Republicans' presumptive 2024 presidential nominee for another election cycle.

Trump is embracing his crew of convicted criminals, conspiracy theorists and the most outlandish of his high-profile backers. They played key roles in some of the most infamous aspects of his past campaigns and his presidency — particularly the effort to overturn the 2020 election that culminated in a mob of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — and their continued influence could have real-world implications.

While Trump distanced himself from many of these individuals at one point, firing or forcing the resignation of Bannon, Flynn, Lewandowski and Manafort, he also later pardoned many of them after they faced legal jeopardy, largely stemming from their work for him.

Flynn, Stone and Bannon in particular all drew the attention of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that was led by Rep. Bennie Thompson, who told USA Today in an interview that he finds it troubling that Trump continues to associate with them.

"To bring them back in a campaign given their demonstrated lack of respect for the rule of law, it's a bad sign," Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said.

There are bigger concerns too. If Trump wins another term, pardoning allies who broke the law and then pulling them back into his political orbit could encourage people in his next administration to ignore legal constraints knowing they'll likely be pardoned, said John Bolton, the former Trump White House national security adviser and veteran of past GOP administrations.

Political experts say that could be a recipe for an explosive second Trump administration stocked with extreme figures who might feel empowered to pursue an agenda unconstrained by the rule of law, or traditional democratic norms and values.

A future Trump administration likely would be staffed by loyalists, sycophants and "radicals," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"It will be the most frightening administration in American history times 100," Sabato said.

President Donald Trump granted a "full pardon" for ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.
President Donald Trump granted a "full pardon" for ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Foot soldiers in Trump's 'final battle'

Trump is promising everything from mass deportations to purging federal agencies if he returns to the White House.

The former president's rhetoric has been particularly stark, drawing comparisons to fascist leaders as he accuses immigrants of “poisoning the blood” of the country, calls his opponents “vermin” and America's "enemies from within," and continues to promote unfounded election fraud claims.

Some of Trump’s language has been apocalyptic, saying there won’t be a country if he doesn’t win and this is the “final battle.”

That view has been echoed by figures such as Bannon, Flynn and Stone, who all use dire terms to describe the stakes of the 2024 presidential election. They have been some of the most radical figures in the GOP in recent years.

Flynn said Trump could seize voting machines and use the military to "rerun" the 2020 election.

Bannon helped instigate the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol and was later pardoned by Trump as he awaited federal trial for allegedly defrauding donors to a border wall fundraising effort. He has pleaded not guilty to a similar set of criminal charges in New York state court.

Manafort and Stone also received Trump pardons after convictions stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Lindell, the MyPillow CEO, is facing a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems and another lawsuit by voting machine company Smartmatic over unfounded statements he made about a rigged election.

Now they're rallying around Trump's 2024 White House run, exemplifying the hardcore nature of his latest campaign.

Steve Bannon broadcasts outside of the convention hall during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. on Feb 22. 2024. Trump's former campaign and White House strategist was convicted in 2022 of contempt of Congress. Bannon was charged after defying a demand to appear before a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack by Trump supporters seeking to prevent Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden's November 2020 election victory. Bannon, who has appealed, has yet to be sentenced. Bannon also faces New York state charges of money laundering and conspiracy, accused by prosecutors of swindling Trump supporters in a scheme involving donations solicited to help build his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Bannon, who pleaded not guilty, is due to go on trial in May 2024. He also was charged in federal court over that same project, but the case ended when Trump pardoned Bannon in the final hours of his presidency in 2021.

White nationalist controversies

No Republican president has had a closer relationship with the far right than Trump, who has welcomed in fringe figures who would have been shunned by past campaigns and administrations.

Trump’s flirtations with such figures has gotten him in trouble at times.

Bannon was fired as White House political adviser after the uproar surrounding the then-president's comments amid a far right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that drew a crowd that included white supremacists.

Trump seemed unwilling to fully condemn those involved, saying there were "very fine people on both sides," a position some attributed to Bannon’s perceived white nationalist sympathies. Bannon's departure also was precipitated by conflicts with others in the administration as he pushed an aggressive nationalist agenda.

Yet even after departing the White House, Bannon never strayed far from Trump world. He used his podcast to gin up support for the demonstration on Jan. 6, 2021, that spilled over into a siege on the Capitol.

That Bannon still wields influence in Trump’s orbit was clear when he spent more than an hour discussing election strategy, possible vice presidential picks and other issues with Donald Trump Jr. on his Rumble show last month. Trump Jr. is one of the family members most involved in the current campaign, as Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner take a backseat this time around, and he could play a key role in a future administration.

Bannon name-checked Trump campaign aides he thought were doing a good job, praised certain strategy decisions, questioned others and laid out his views on what Trump should do in the first 100 days if reelected. He also painted the picture of a nation engaged in an epic battle.

“We are gonna fight every day for this, we have President Trump’s back,” Bannon said. “We’re not gonna back off one inch and people have to understand we’re at war.”

Five years after the Charlottesville controversy, Trump dined with white supremacist Nick Fuentes at Mar-a-Lago, the former president's estate in Palm Beach, and set off another round of recriminations that he was aligning himself with extremists.

The former president claimed not to know anything about Fuentes, who has a long history of racist and antisemitic comments.

Yet it showed how controversial figures continue to have access to Trump, with the private Mar-a-Lago club at times a nexus for the far right despite the former president hiring top advisers who are viewed as running a more professional and competent campaign than in the past.

Trump's 2024 campaign is helmed by Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, who both have a long history in mainstream GOP politics. Those who know Wiles say she is no ideologue, and brings stability and order to the campaign.

Yet Wiles didn't prevent the meeting with Fuentes and doesn't appear to be acting as a gatekeeper in limiting Trump's contact with more controversial figures in his orbit.

"What I’ve heard is she knows she’s not going to control him," said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump 2016 campaign aide turned critic. "She can’t manage him. She also makes strategic allies.”

Roger Stone speaks to supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2021, in Washington as they protest the congressional certification of the Electoral College vote. Stone was pardoned in December 2020 after being convicted of seven felonies, including lying under oath.
Roger Stone speaks to supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2021, in Washington as they protest the congressional certification of the Electoral College vote. Stone was pardoned in December 2020 after being convicted of seven felonies, including lying under oath.

Michael Flynn, Roger Stone and Laura Loomer at Mar-a-Lago

As the election has ramped up this year, controversial figures such as Flynn, Stone and Loomer all have met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Flynn was Trump's first national security adviser. He pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador and was later pardoned by Trump. Loomer is a far-right activist who was banned from multiple media platforms for extreme anti-Islamic statements.

Stone became infamous as a dirty trickster for President Richard Nixon's campaign and is one of Trump's longest serving political advisers. He was convicted in 2019 of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

In early 2021, Stone was in Washington D.C. in the days leading up to Jan. 6 and used as body guards members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, two extremist groups whose members were later charged and convicted for crimes tied to the insurrection. Stone has denied having any knowledge or involvement in the events surrounding Jan. 6 or the conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2024 election that has led to federal criminal charges against Trump himself.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Stone said he still speaks with Trump occasionally but doesn’t have a formal role in the campaign. He has been spotted at events at Mar-a-Lago recently, and was there on Super Tuesday for Trump’s election night party.

“Everything I do is on a voluntary basis and I kind of pick my shots,” Stone said of his work for the campaign.

That Trump remains close to leading rightwing figures outside mainstream GOP politics shouldn’t be surprising given the makeup of his following, Stone said.

“Look, the Trump movement is much bigger than the Republican Party” said Stone, noting it includes a lot of people “outside the traditional Republican structure.”

“Running a campaign that balances regular establishment Republicans who see Trump as a winner and America First Republicans who see Trump as an outsider, you need both,” he said.

That some of these figures, Stone included, are convicted criminals might not be a problem for many Republicans who are embracing Trump even as he faces four criminal cases, which he calls politically driven.

A video of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is played as Cassidy Hutchinson, a top former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testifies during the sixth hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2022.
A video of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is played as Cassidy Hutchinson, a top former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testifies during the sixth hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2022.

Flynn has emerged as a hero to the far right, and Trump has come to celebrate him again after initially distancing himself when he was forced out as national security adviser. A group Flynn leads staged an event at Mar-a-Lago on Mach 28, where he gave Trump an award and the former president called him “a great gentleman.”

“I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for the country,” Trump added, according to a video posted on X. “You’re a brave guy and a wonderful man and a very smart one, and you’re on my side and I’m on your side all the way.”

Flynn met with Trump in the White House in December 2020 to discuss efforts to overturn the election.

Stone said he believes Trump might give Flynn a position in his administration if he wins. Some Trump fans are happy to see Flynn's resurgence.

"It's horrible what they did to Michael Flynn, horrible... I don't think he did anything wrong," said Mary Kane, 77, a retired credit union worker from the Philadelphia area who was at Trump's rally in Wildwood, NJ, this month.

Other controversial figures have been considered for positions in Trump’s campaign, including Loomer, Manafort and Lewandowski, according to reports in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Manafort served as chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign. He was later sentenced to more than seven years in prison for financial, witness tampering and lobbying crimes, though he too secured a Trump pardon in the final days of the Republican administration.

9/17/19 1:07:14 PM -- Washington, DC, U.S.A  -- Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager for President Trump, appears before the House Judiciary committee during a hearing on Presidential Obstruction of Justice and Abuse of Power on Sept. 17, 2019 in Washington alongside empty chairs of Rick Dearborn, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and Robert Porter, former Assistant to the President, both refused to appear before the committee under subpoena. --    Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Staff ORG XMIT:  JG 138260 Lewandowski 9/17/2019 (Via OlyDrop)

Lewandowski ran Trump’s 2016 campaign before being fired. He was charged with battery at one point during that campaign for grabbing a reporter, but the charge was dropped. In 2021, a pro-Trump super PAC pushed Lewandowski out after a Trump donor accused him of unwanted sexual advances.

In 2024, Trump’s campaign reportedly has been considering using Lewandowski and Manafort to help with the convention. “I mean, I think he talks to them from time to time but he has no formal or informal role,” Stone said of Manafort, who used to be his partner in a lobbying business.

Loomer did want to work on Trump’s reelection effort and Trump wanted to hire her, Stone said, but the former president received pushback from some in his circle and ultimately decided not to.

In 2018, Loomer posted on X that “someone needs to create a non Islamic form of Uber or Lyft because I never want to support another Islamic immigrant driver.” She was banned from both platforms, but continued to describe herself as a “proud Islamaphobe.”

She has met with Trump regularly and flown on his plane, according to the Washington Post.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), left, opens a public hearing before the House committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on July 12, 2022 in Washington DC. Left is committee vice-chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), left, opens a public hearing before the House committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on July 12, 2022 in Washington DC. Left is committee vice-chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).

'With Trump, you have a team of felons'

Like many things that Trump does, bringing back into the fold a group of political operatives that he pardoned has no modern historical precedent.

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley pointed to the Amnesty Act of 1872, which allowed former Confederate soldiers to be pardoned to serve in the U.S. government, as the last time a group of pardoned individuals “were allowed to reengage in executive branch service.”

“With Lincoln, they had a team of rivals," Brinkley said. "With Trump, you have a team of felons."

Presidents normally try not to be associated with criminals, Brinkley noted. For Trump, though, the fact that these individuals endured legal problems for him may be a sign he can trust them to be loyal.

"He saved their hides from jail so they’re dutiful to Trump," Brinkley said. "Their life stories are now melded together. So the trust factor for Trump with Manafort and Bannon and the like is quite high."

The far right nature of some of these individuals who are close to Trump also is unusual. Presidential candidates usually try to steer toward the center as they move into the general election.

"He's going full MAGA and these are his engineers" Brinkley said.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Sabato said Trump's continued association with people who committed criminal acts related to his administration and campaign is "totally unprecedented."

"This is like Richard Nixon in 1972 and the remainder of his campaign bringing in the Watergate burglars,” he said.

Bolton, who has since become a vocal Trump critic since leaving his administration, said he is less worried about pardoned individuals continuing to have influence with Trump than the message it sends to members of a future administration.

“What I worry about is what it says to people," Bolton said. "That if they think they’re carrying out the president’s bidding they’re going to get pardoned no matter what they do, that’s the bad signal."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: It's 'Trump 2024' for pardoned felons who remain in ex-president's orbit