“THE CLINTONS HAVE sold out their own people for cold cash,” raged Donald Trump’s campaign chief, Steve Bannon, ahead of the 2016 election. “These people are corrupt…from stem to stern,” he continued, his voice rising in fury. “If they get in the White House it’s going to be like the last days of Sodom as far as the money-changing goes.”
On August 20th Mr Bannon was arrested aboard a fugitive Chinese billionaire’s 150-foot super-yacht off the coast of Connecticut. He was charged with fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign to build sections of wall on privately owned land along the US-Mexico border. He and three associates stand accused of scamming hundreds of thousands of dollars from Trump-supporting contributors to the so-called “We Build the Wall” scheme. (The yacht-owner, Guo Wengui, is not accused of involvement.)
The four have been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money-laundering. According to Audrey Strauss, the acting US attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office investigated the alleged scam, the four men “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretence that all of the money would be spent on construction.” Mr Bannon appeared in court after his arrest, entering a not-guilty plea. At the time of writing, the accused had not commented further on the charges.
The front-man of the alleged scam, Brian Kolfage, a wounded veteran of the Iraq war, launched the wall-building scheme in December 2018, in response to Mr Trump’s slow progress on building the border-barrier that was the central promise of his presidential campaign. At that time, his administration had replaced some patches of existing border-fencing, but built no new sections. Mr Kolfage vowed to address this failure, which he blamed on “political games from both parties”, by raising $1bn via a GoFundMe appeal.
The scheme raised around $17m in its first week, according to the 23-page indictment, released by the Department of Justice. Subsequently transferred to a non-profit organisation, it has raised over $25m overall—all of which, its members claimed, would be spent on wall-building. “We’re a volunteer organisation,” Mr Bannon said.
In reality, said Ms Strauss, the four accused schemed to siphon off vast sums for their personal use. Mr Kolfage is alleged to have creamed off $350,000 to “fund his lavish lifestyle”. Mr Bannon, a former investment banker turned ethno-nationalist activist, was described as the chairman of the wall-building scheme’s advisory board. He is accused of directing over $1m into a non-profit organisation he controlled. He transferred some of the cash to Mr Kolfage and kept a “substantial portion of those donor funds for personal uses and expenses unrelated to We Build the Wall”. The four men are accused of “creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth.”
This makes Mr Bannon the sixth former Trump campaign adviser to have been charged with or convicted of a serious crime since the president’s election. Others include another sometime campaign chief, Paul Manafort, the president’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, and his former adviser, Roger Stone.
Asked to comment on Mr Bannon’s arrest, Mr Trump—who famously claimed that Mexico would pay for his still-unbuilt border barrier—said he considered it “a very sad thing”. He denied having been supportive of “We Build the Wall”, claiming he thought it had been “done for showboating reasons”. Yet several of his current close advisers had praised or been involved with the scheme.
Kris Kobach, a maverick Kansan Republican and prominent Trump supporter, claimed last year to have discussed it with the president, and said Mr Trump was keen on the scheme. Mr Kobach, who was previously appointed by Mr Trump to lead a bogus and ill-fated commission into electoral fraud, was listed as the wall scheme’s general counsel. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, also praised it—at a wall-building symposium in New Mexico last year—as “private enterprise at its finest”.
After Mr Trump’s election, Mr Bannon served in the White House as his chief strategist. After leaving the administration, he was briefly excommunicated from Mr Trump’s orbit for having briefed Michael Wolff, author of “Fire and Fury”, a supremely unflattering exposé of the Trump administration. But he continued to campaign on right-wing populist issues—including Euroscepticism in Europe as well as immigration restrictionism in America—and kept in contact with other members of Mr Trump’s shrinking inner circle.