Onetime White House adviser Stephen Bannon cashed in on Donald Trump’s signature ‘build the wall’ promise, prosecutors say; he could die in prison.
Trump Administration’s Own Police Arrest Former Senior Trump Strategist
Federal agents arrested former senior White House adviser Stephen Bannon and three others Thursday morning on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and money-laundering.
The four raised millions of dollars on the false promise that they would independently build sections of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, in line with President Donald Trump’s broader operation that uses taxpayer funds, according to a federal grand jury indictment.
Bannon served as Trump’s chief strategist at the White House for seven months after being his 2016 campaign’s CEO for three months. He was taken into custody on a 175-foot yacht off the coast of Connecticut, wearing a waxed green Barbour jacket with expanded pockets meant for shotgun shells.
Among his co-defendants is Brian Kolfage, an Air Force veteran and a triple amputee who first proposed the fundraising bonanza.
At the White House, the president told reporters that he had been aware of the “We Build The Wall” group, but “I know nothing about the project other than I didn’t like when I read about it.”
“It sounded to me like showboating,” he said.
Trump distanced himself from Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, who he branded “Sloppy Steve” after he left the White House, saying that in addition to campaign work, “he worked for Goldman Sachs. He worked for a lot of companies.”
The president said he hadn’t met the other three defendants, but “I don’t think that should be a privately financed wall. … It’s too complex. It’s too big.”
He claimed his administration has built nearly 300 miles of the border, which he promised to erect during the 2016 campaign.
He mocked Bannon’s group on Thursday, saying “I was reading where they were having construction problems. … They had a small area just to show people they could build a wall and they were having a lot of problems where it was toppling over and other things.”
Bannon, along with Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, raised $25 million through online crowdfunding for an organization called “We Build The Wall,” and pledged that Kolfage, the group’s leader, would “not take a penny in salary or compensation,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.
“The defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” the Justice Department said.
Audrey Strauss, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is prosecuting the case, just months after Attorney General William Barr pressured Geoffrey Berman to step down from the high-profile post.
Kolfage allegedly kept more than $350,000. Bannon is accused of receiving more than $1 million and spent hundreds of thousands on his own personal expenses.
The fraud scheme included “creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes,” said New York’s United States Postal Inspection Service Inspector-in-Charge Philip Bartlett.
Bannon, 66, has said publicly of We Build The Wall that “we’re a volunteer organization.”
Wearing a mask, Bannon entered a not guilty plea in his first court hearing on Thursday, arranged via video from a holding cell. He was released on a $5 million bond, secured by assets whose combined worth is $1.75 million.
Conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering are federal crimes whose penalties can each be up to 20 years in prison.
The indictment unsealed Thursday ordered the defendants to surrender bank accounts, a Land Rover, and a 40-foot boat called “Warfighter.” Video footage posted on Instagram shows that the 2019 Jupiter Marine boat participated in a July 4 boat parade in Destin, Florida. The parade was organized as a show of support for the president.
We Build the Wall collected its first $17 million by claiming it would give the money to the federal government for the purpose of building sections of the border wall.
GoFundMe canceled the campaign after the group changed course and said the nonprofit would build the wall by itself.
(Edited by Matthew Cooper.)