Bannon’s Lawyer Claims Communication Breakdown in Border Wall Case
A lawyer for Steve Bannon said at a court hearing Thursday that he and Mr. Bannon have had “a complete breakdown in communication,” in a rote proceeding that was quickly overtaken by a fiery argument between the lawyer and a New York judge.
At the opening of the session in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Mr. Bannon’s lawyer, David Schoen, said that he wanted to withdraw from the case, saying that Mr. Bannon, an associate of former President Donald J. Trump, was entitled to the representation of his choice, with no caveats.
“With all due respect, I believe you’re 100 percent wrong,” said the judge, Juan M. Merchan, responding to the claim that Mr. Bannon had unqualified freedom in his choice of lawyer. If Mr. Bannon’s search for a lawyer were indulged completely, it could delay the case indefinitely.
The judge’s response offered the first hint that the hearing would be suffused with the chaos that often surrounds Mr. Bannon, a right-wing pundit, political operator and podcaster who recently suggested that Mr. Trump be chosen as speaker of the House.
A heated back and forth ensued between Mr. Schoen and the judge, conducted at a volume that carried throughout the high-ceilinged downtown courtroom.
In September, Mr. Bannon was charged by the Manhattan district attorney’s office with defrauding contributors to an organization that sought to help construct a wall along the southern border. Mr. Bannon had been charged federally in 2020 for similar conduct, but was pardoned by Mr. Trump before he left the White House. A trial is set to take place in the fall.
Mr. Bannon had been scheduled to appear last month, but the hearing was postponed, in part because his lawyers claimed that they had reached an impasse with their client.
On Thursday, Mr. Schoen commenced his explanation of those circumstances in a roundabout manner: “If a defendant and his lawyers have a complete breakdown of communication …” Mr. Schoen began. Before he could finish, Justice Merchan interrupted, asking him to speak plainly.
Mr. Schoen obliged. “There has been a direct breakdown in communication,” he said. “Mr. Bannon and his lawyers don’t communicate about this case directly. We only communicate through a third-party attorney.” Mr. Schoen said that they could not agree on a defense strategy, or much of anything else.
The show of frustration was unusual from Justice Merchan, who for the most part seemed unruffled throughout the trial of Mr. Trump’s company, which he also oversaw.
After the hearing, Mr. Schoen said that he had “really hit it off with the judge today.”
He said that while he was no longer communicating with Mr. Bannon on the wall case, he was still on good terms with him otherwise, and was in fact representing him in another matter. It was unclear why this particular case had become impossible for them to discuss.
Mr. Bannon, for his part, restricted his comments to the Brazilian election, which he claimed, with no evidence, was “stolen.”
During the hearing, he was silent as a prosecutor, Daniel Passeser, said that the withdrawal of Mr. Schoen and his law partner John W. Mitchell would be a “nonissue” were it not that Mr. Bannon’s refusal to engage with his lawyer was “effectively delaying the case.”
However, Mr. Passeser said, as long as the case proceeded on schedule, he would not complain.
That appeared to set Mr. Schoen off. He said that Mr. Passeser had omitted something “rather significant,” and began to discuss the prodigious amount of evidence and other documentary material in the case, which Mr. Schoen said amounted to some multiple of the Library of Congress’s print collection.
The judge was not moved. “You’ve said that about 20 times,” Justice Merchan said.
After more sharp exchanges, the judge asked the lawyers to approach the bench, where they had an inaudible discussion. Afterward, the judge addressed Mr. Schoen again.
“I’m sorry you feel that you were dragged in here when you didn’t want to be dragged in here,” he said. “You and your client will be treated the same as any other defendant in this courthouse.”
The judge granted Mr. Bannon until Feb. 28 to find a new lawyer. He said that it was “disingenuous” to say that the search for a new lawyer would not delay the case. He asked Mr. Bannon whether he understood; Mr. Bannon, speaking for the only time during the hearing, said that he did.
Once a new lawyer was found, Justice Merchan told Mr. Schoen, “you never need to come back.”