Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, was pulled from a yacht and arrested Thursday on allegations that he and three associates ripped off donors trying to fund a southern border wall.
The organizers of the “We Build The Wall” group portrayed themselves as eager to help the President build a “big beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, as he had promised during the 2016 campaign. They raised more than $25 million from thousands of donors, using their ties to the President to build legitimacy, and pledged that 100% of the money would be used for the project.
But according to the criminal charges unsealed Thursday, much of the money never made it to the wall. Instead, it was used to line the pockets of group members, including Bannon, who served in President Trump’s White House and worked for his campaign. He allegedly took over $1 million, using some to secretly pay co-defendant Brian Kolfage, the founder of the project, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.
Bannon was taken into custody by the postal inspection service on a 150-foot luxury yacht called Lady May, which was off the coast of Connecticut, authorities said.
Neither Bannon, nor his spokeswoman or attorney responded to requests for comment Thursday. Kolfage did not respond either.
Other prominent members of the group included former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, its general counsel; Erik Prince, founder of security firm Blackwater; former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado; and former professional athlete Curt Schilling. They were not named in the indictment.
Trump quickly distanced himself from Bannon while claiming he knew nothing about the project and never believed in a privately financed barrier.
“When I read about it, I didn’t like it. I said, ‘This is for government; this isn’t for private people.’ And it sounded to me like showboating,” he told reporters at the White House, adding that he felt “very badly” about the situation.
An immigration plan unveiled by Trump last year included a proposal to allow the public to donate toward his long-promised wall, as the Kolfage group had originally said was its mission before changing it to private construction of their own wall. But Trump later denounced the project publicly, tweeting last month that he “disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads” and claiming, “It was only done to make me look bad.”
Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press he had been made aware of the investigation into Bannon months ago but did not say whether the President had been informed.
According to the indictment, the defendants used fake invoices, another nonprofit and sham vendor arrangements to try to hide their efforts. Under the arrangement, Bannon and his co-defendants allegedly paid Kolfage $100,000 upfront and an additional $20,000 monthly, all while claiming they served as volunteers and that Kolfage was not paid.
The indictment said Kolfage “went so far as to send mass emails to his donors asking them to purchase coffee from his unrelated business, telling donors the coffee company was the only way he ‘keeps his family fed and a roof over their head.’”
Kolfage eventually spent some of the over $350,000 he received on home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit-card debt.
Charges included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Originally called “We the People Build the Wall,” the campaign launched in December 2018 and raised approximately $17 million in its first week. But it soon drew scrutiny. The crowdfunding site that hosted it suspended the campaign and warned that it would return donations unless the money was transferred to a legitimate nonprofit. Bannon was brought in around that time, and the group took on its new name and changed its mission to building its own wall.
It originally promoted a project for three miles of fence posts in South Texas that was ultimately built and largely funded by Fisher Industries, which has received about $2 billion in funding for wall contracts.
In 2019, Kolfage and Fisher successfully constructed a half-mile of bollard-style border fence on privately donated land in New Mexico near El Paso, Texas. We Build The Wall used early construction to raise more cash and more private land donations in border states.
Construction faced resistance from local authorities in New Mexico and Texas and drew accusations of improper permitting. In May, federal officials found that a section of Fisher’s privately funded wall violated flood-construction standards along the Rio Grande and also caused erosion.
Dustin Stockton, who helped start the campaign then left the project to work on the upcoming presidential election, said it seemed clear that federal prosecutors were “attacking political infrastructure that supports President Trump right before the election.” He was not charged in the case.
Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being tapped to serve as chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign in its critical final months. He later served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of the Trump Administration.
The combative Bannon was a voice of nationalist, outsider conservatism, and he was at the forefront of many of the administration’s most contentious policies, including its travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers and was pushed out.
Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and as a Hollywood producer before turning to politics, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called “War Room” that began during the President’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.
A day before the indictment was unsealed, Kolfage was a featured guest on the show.