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Former Trump aide Bannon charged with swindling donors in private border wall effort

Steve Bannon, a former senior White House adviser to President Donald Trump, has been arrested and charged with three other men for swindling donors who supported a private effort to build sections of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Bannon and the other men were indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering in connection with their roles in the non-profit group “We Build the Wall.”

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Prosecutors allege that Bannon, 66, diverted $ 1 million raised by the group to another organization he controlled and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of donor funds on his personal expenses. Also charged in the two-count conspiracy indictment: activists Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea.

Bannon — Trump’s de facto campaign manager during the latter months of the 2016 presidential race and chief White House strategist before being forced out in August 2017 — was arrested Thursday morning on a boat in the Long Island sound off Connecticut, according to a law enforcement source who asked not to be named.

Bannon is expected to appear before a federal magistrate in New York later Thursday, prosecutors said.

The investigation into the border wall group with strong connections to Trump allies had been a closely-held secret. The stunning indictment was returned Monday and unsealed Thursday — four days before the opening of the Republican National Convention — a move likely to provoke the president, who has accused opponents of trying to create distractions around the quadrennial nominating event.

Trump and the White House swiftly distanced the president from both Bannon and the wall-building effort. Trump and Bannon have had an at-times contentious relationship since the former Breitbart executive left the White House, particularly over negative comments Bannon made about Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. But recently, Bannon has been aggressively defending the president in a podcasts he hosts.

“I feel very badly,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday. “I don’t like that project — I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.” Yet Trump also claimed he didn’t “know anything about the project at all.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also noted Trump had spoken out against the project in July, although at least one person involved in the project, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, previously claimed the effort had the president’s blessing.

Despite Trump’s claim that he was opposed to the privately-financed project, it has won kudos from numerous figures close to the president.

The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., offered praise for the effort during a surprise appearance at a symposium last July near a half-mile stretch of wall the group erected in Sunland Park, N.M., the El Paso Times reported.

During the visit, Trump Jr. hailed the private project as “what capitalism is all about.”

“This is private enterprise at its finest,” he said. “Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else. What you guys are doing is amazing.”

And during a trip to the border last November, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said he “welcomed” the project, according to the same newspaper. During Wolf’s trip, a Border Patrol official also offered support, calling the project “very effective” and a game-changer for those patrolling in the area.

The wall project, launched in late 2018 as a GoFundMe fundraiser, has been controversial from the start, both because of its anti-immigration premise and because critics have long charged it had the hallmarks of a scam.

Before launching the wall project, Kolfage, an Air Force veteran and triple amputee, had operated conspiracy-minded right-wing websites that were banned from Facebook. In March, he launched an effort to sell N95 respirator masks, which were in short supply amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

Badolato has a long history with Bannon. During the last presidential campaign, it emerged that Bannon had registered to vote at Badolato’s home address in Florida. In 2016, POLITICO first reported that Bannon and Badolato had partnered in dubious penny stock ventures, and that Badolato had been implicated in a stock manipulation scheme, though he was not charged.

Dustin Stockton, a conservative strategist who worked on the wall project, told POLITICO that armed agents raided an RV he is traveling in with his fiancée Jennifer Lawrence, the project’s communications director, at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday morning in Mesquite, Nev. Stockton said the agents served them a warrant and a grand jury subpoena from the Southern District of New York, seizing their phones.

Stockton was not charged in the indictment, but denounced the raids and charges as “political intimidation.”

“SDNY is OUT OF CONTROL,” Stockton wrote on Twitter. “Attacking political infrastructure just before an election is unAmerican. @realDonaldTrump this is election tampering.”

While Kolfage and the other two men charged Thursday don’t appear to have close ties to Trump, several prominent Trump supporters are involved with the organization. In addition to Kobach, Erik Prince, founder of private military contractor Blackwater, and former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke are all listed on “We Build the Wall” website as part of the “team” leading the organization.

Separately, the charges add new context to a recent power play that ended in June with the ouster of the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman.

When Attorney General William Barr moved to replace Berman, many observers speculated that as the election neared, the attorney general was seeking to assert control over a politically sensitive investigation into Trump’s private attorney Rudy Giuliani and perhaps other probes into Trump’s business affairs.

However, it was not known that the same office was deep into an inquiry into alleged federal crimes by another senior figure in Trumpworld, Bannon, or one that also involved one of the president’s highest policy priorities, the border wall.

Berman resisted leaving, despite an announcement Barr issued saying the Trump-appointed prosecutor had agreed to depart. Berman was eventually dismissed, but Barr also agreed to allow Berman’s career deputy, Audrey Strauss, to take over as acting U.S. Attorney.

Strauss announced the charges against Bannon and the other men Thursday morning via press release. The indictment was returned by a grand jury on Monday and unsealed Thursday, court records show.

“As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction,” Strauss said. “While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle.”

An attorney for Bannon, William Burck, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Berman declined to comment on the development.

Bannon’s departure from the White House was acrimonious and followed clashes with numerous other officials and advisers to Trump. The brash adviser claimed he had submitted his resignation well in advance of his dismissal, but others said he was fired.

Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone has been a particularly harsh critic of Bannon, accusing him of “treachery.” Bannon testified as a prosecution witness against Stone during the GOP operative’s trial last year on charges of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a House investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia.

Bannon stressed publicly that he was compelled to testify under subpoena, but he told the jury Stone had served as the campaign’s key conduit for details about on expected WikiLeaks’ releases.

Stone, who didn’t take the stand in his own defense, later said Bannon’s testimony amounted to perjury because it contradicted statements he’d made to a House panel.

The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post also reported last week that in June 2019, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington that said testimony from Bannon was misleading and could have amounted to a crime. No charges of that sort have ever been filed.

“Bannon’s testimony at my trial was false,” Stone told POLITICO via email Thursday. “Worse, the Government had an obligation to disclose to my lawyers that Bannon was under investigation in the Wall matters prior to the time of his testimony which they did not.”

Regarding Bannon’s arrest, Stone said: “While Karma is a bitch, I will still be praying for Bannon.”

Betsy Woodruff Swan contributed to this report.


Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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