Steve Bannon’s arrest on Wednesday marks yet another arrest on fraud-related charges of someone connected to President Trump. He and three co-defendants stand charged with wire fraud and money laundering in connection with an attempt to privately fund a wall at the US-Mexico Border. Bannon had previously operated mostly in lawful, ethical grey areas. Propagandist and prevaricator would have previously been completely appropriate words to describe the president’s former confidante. With the unveiling of a scathing indictment against him and his co-conspirators this week, his skullduggery has made a foray into the criminal. It is another in long line of criminal charges brought against the associates of the leader of the free world.
‘’Build the Wall’’ was a ubiquitous chant at Trump rally’s during his 2016 campaign. To fight the dubious scourge of immigrants and the drugs and crime he associates with them, the then-candidate promised to erect a physical barrier between the contiguous 48 and our neighbor to the south. Steve Bannon is a staunch opponent of immigration, legal and illegal. He was brought aboard to manage Trump’s campaign in no small part because of the alignment of his nationalistic views with those of Donald Trump. Following Trump’s victory, Bannon was made chief political strategist; he was said to keep a whiteboard charting the progress of promises made on the campaign. The pledge to build a ‘’big, beautiful wall’’, that Mexico would pay for no less, never gained much steam. To date, roughly 80 miles of new fencing has been erected across the 1,954 miles border. Disputes with Congress over funding, never resulted in the president’s desired appropriation and led to a government shutdown from December 2018- January 2019. Bannon’s tenure at the White House was brief. Based on the charges against him, his white whale of a wall across the Southern US border was never far from mind.
In December of 2018, Air Force veteran, Brian Kolfage started a GoFundMe drive attempting to raise money for private construction of a border wall. Steve Bannon joined the cause shortly thereafter. It was successful to the tune of $25 million in contributions. GoFundMe appears to have expressed skepticism of the campaign, which would be converted to a 501c nonprofit, We Build the Wall. Upon, the switch, donors were made to opt-in to the new charity, to safely ensure the transfers of their previous donation to the new entity. They donated under the premise that none of fund raisers would take any compensation for themselves. All of their donations were to go to the federal government. That premise was a rouse, leading to the charges against Bannon and co. Kolfage is alleged to have siphoned roughly $350K from the fund. Among other personal expenses, he used his ill-gotten gains for payments on a boat, luxury SUV and existing credit card debt. Bannon is alleged to have received just under $1 million for his personal use. Investigators had been on the scent of the crime for over a year. In a move indicating awareness of their guilt, the group regularly moved money around through shell companies and wrote off payments to themselves as seemingly legitimate business expenses. Prosecutors have no text messages between the co-conspirators after October of 2019, as the group switched to an encrypted messaging service for all We Build the Wall related communications, suggesting they were aware they were the targets of a criminal investigation.
The 24-page indictment in the case outlines a carefully orchestrated fraud scheme over the course of a year and change. Each charge is a felony, for which the defendants face up to 20 years imprisonment. A wall on the Southern border was a dog whistle that propelled Steve Bannon to prominence and Donald Trump to the White House. When it failed to materialize through normal channels, it became the perfect centerpiece for an opportunistic grift.
The charges against Bannon are severe. They also fit neatly into a pattern of deceitful criminal behavior by those in Trump’s orbit. All three of the men who oversaw his 2016 campaigned have faced criminal charges. Corey Lewandowski was arrested in 2016 for grabbing a female reporter who had addressed a question towards the then-candidate. Per the Mueller Report, he was also involved in Trump’s obstruction of justice, for acting as a go-between in Trump’s attempt to fire then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Paul Manafort was convicted of bank and tax fraud charges and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. The recently released Senate Intelligence Report categorized him as a ‘’grave national security threat’’ given that he served as an interface between the Trump campaign and Kremlin-backed operative Konstantin Kilmnik. He secretly shared internal campaign data with Kilmink and worked to undermine evidence of Russia’s election interference, seeking to point suspicions towards the Ukraine. How these efforts shaped Trump’s thinking, and his presidency, need no elaboration. Guilt by association is a dubious principle. But it is telling that Donald Trump’s two longest serving campaign managers have been convicted or credibly accused of fraudulent, criminal behavior.
Brian Kolfage in in many ways perfectly emblematic of the pervasive corruption of all things Trump. He is an Air Force veteran who lost both his legs and arms serving in Iraq. He is a sympathetic figure who one would think has the best interests of the nation at heart. Exploiting xenophobia masquerading as patriotism, he claimed to earnestly solicit donations in the name of national security. Very little of the donations went towards construction of a border wall. A substantial portion went into the pockets of the fund raisers despite their promises to the contrary. If the charges in the indictment are substantiated, Steve Bannon was an active and willing participant almost from the con’s inception. Although he and Trump parted ways in the summer of 2017, it is difficult to completely disassociate the two considering the disturbing overlap in their respective patterns of fraud and toxic rhetoric.