As a candidate, Donald Trump surrounded himself with a loyal coterie of advisers who he praised as only “the very best people.” But for a growing number from that original inner circle, the boss’s presidential term has been bruising.
With a fraud indictment handed down Thursday, former campaign CEO and chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon became the latest in a succession of Trump insiders to face criminal charges.
Bannon, who pleaded not guilty, joined a roster that has included longtime adviser Roger Stone, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, and personal attorney Michael Cohen – all of them charged over the past four years.
Another personal attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is reported to be the subject of an investigation for his business relationship with two men arrested in an alleged campaign finance scheme. Giuliani has professed his innocence.
It is a record that burns the president – who has called his team the most investigated in history.
“What they did to that man -- what they did to Paul Manafort,” Trump ruminated at a Fox News town hall in June. “Roger Stone -- what they’ve done to Roger Stone because he knew me …What they did to General Flynn… my job was made -- just to say -- My job was made harder by phony witch hunts.”
Manafort, Cohen and Stone were all convicted on a range of federal charges, and Gates pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. The Justice Department withdrew charges against Flynn after he had initially pleaded guilty.
For some of the Trump insiders, the gauntlet of criminal court was life-altering.
Cohen, who remains in home confinement, wrote in the foreword of a forthcoming book that he “made choices along the way -- terrible, heartless, stupid, cruel, dishonest, destructive choices, but they were mine and constituted my reality and life.”
Others have maintained their steadfast allegiance. Manafort, also released to home confinement in May from a 7-year sentence, has maintained his silence. Stone only grew more effusive in his praise of the president as he awaited a prison sentence – and became the recipient of executive clemency from Trump.
Stone, still angered that Bannon testified against him at his trial in November, offered this frosty message to his former political ally on word of his arrest: “I wish him well and will be praying for him as the Bible tells us to pray for those who trespass against us.”
As Trump seeks re-election, he and his allies have dismissed the allegations of criminal conduct against those who have been in his circle – calling the allegations evidence of persecution of Trump by entrenched political interests.
His opponents and critics see evidence of a rot that starts at the top. Biden spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield unsparing in her reaction to the Bannon arrest.
“Donald Trump has run the most corrupt administration in American history,” she said. “So is it really any surprise that yet another one of the grifters he's surrounded himself with, and placed in the highest levels of government was just indicted? Sadly it is not.”
Trump is by no means the only national politician who has seen those in his orbit -- friends, advisers and political donors -- face criminal charges.
The Watergate burglary, which led to Richard Nixon’s downfall, resulted in a number of Nixon’s associates, including his campaign operative G. Gordon Liddy, being convicted. Bill Clinton pardoned his brother, Roger, who was convicted of cocaine possession in the 1980s. And on his last day in office, Clinton made the controversial decision to pardon financier and major Democratic donor Marc Rich, who had fled overseas to escape indictment for alleged financial crimes. In 2009, a top donor to Democrats John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama -- New York financier Hassan Nemazee –– was sent to prison after being convicted of financial crimes.
Richard Painter, an attorney and frequent Trump critic who served as ethics counsel in the administration of President George W. Bush, said he considers this president’s record to be more problematic than others in the recent past. In an interview with ABC News, Painter said he wonders if the president simply “doesn’t seem to care who he hires,” describing the staffing decisions as “epic disasters.”
Even some of the president’s most reliable allies are loathe to disagree. Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has been an informal Trump adviser and serves as a consultant to ABC News, said Thursday that when it comes to hiring, Trump has a “blind spot.”
“It’s an indictment of his selection of the people around him,” Christie said.
ABC News reporter Ali Dukakis contributed to this report.