By Sarah N. Lynch and Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Steve Bannon, an architect of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, has been charged with defrauding Trump supporters in a campaign to help build the president’s signature wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, prosecutors said on Thursday.
As a top adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign who later served as White House chief strategist, Bannon helped articulate the right-wing populism and fierce opposition to immigration that have been hallmarks of Trump’s 3-1/2 years in office. Trump fired Bannon from his White House post in August 2017.
Bannon, 66, was among four people arrested on Thursday and charged by federal prosecutors in Manhattan with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. They each face up to 40 years in prison.
Bannon was arrested aboard a 150-foot-long (45-meter-long) yacht in Connecticut, according to a law enforcement source.
Prosecutors accused the defendants of defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors through a $25 million crowdfunding campaign called “We Build the Wall,” the Justice Department said. Prosecutors said Bannon received more than $1 million of that money through an unnamed nonprofit organization.
Bannon heads a nonprofit organization called Citizens of the American Public that received more than $4.4 million in contributions in 2018, government filings show.
The famously disheveled entrepreneur headed the right-wing Breitbart News before joining Trump’s campaign. Bannon later returned to that job, but quit after angering Trump. He has since promoted a variety of right-wing causes and candidates in the United States and abroad.
Trump told reporters at the White House that he feels “very badly” about Bannon’s charges but sought to distance himself from Bannon and the alleged scheme at the center of the case.
“I do think it’s a sad event,” Trump said. “I haven’t dealt with him at all now for years, literally years.”
Bannon represents the latest close Trump associate to face criminal charges, a list that also includes former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates. Trump last month commuted Stone’s prison sentence, using his power of executive clemency to benefit a political ally.
A lawyer for Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump has struggled to build his signature border wall – a key 2016 campaign promise – in the face of court challenges, logistical hurdles and opposition from congressional Democrats. His administration has completed 30 new miles (48 km) of border fencing and replaced another 240 miles (386 km) of barriers along the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border, government figures show.
More than 330,000 supporters have donated to private fund-raisers and profiteers who have promised to build the wall on their own, according to a 2019 Reuters investigation.
The group built two wall sections on private land in New Mexico and Texas, drawing some fire from local residents who said proper permits were not obtained. The wall section in Texas has suffered from erosion problems, according to a report last month.
“I know nothing about the project other than … 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,” Trump told reporters.
The Republican president also said he did not know the three others charged along with Bannon and did not believe he had ever met them.
BIDEN CAMPAIGN BLASTS TRUMP
The indictment comes as Trump trails in opinion polls behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Biden’s campaign said the charges underscore that corruption surrounds Trump.
“He has consistently used his office to enrich himself, his family and his cronies, so is it really any surprise that yet another one of the grifters he surrounded himself with and placed in the highest levels of government was just indicted?” deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield asked on a conference call with reporters.
The charges are being handled by the same federal office that prosecuted Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. The office’s top prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, was abruptly ousted by Attorney General William Barr earlier this year.
Also charged on Thursday were Brian Kolfage, 38, Andrew Badolato, 56, and Timothy Shea, 49, who prosecutors said were involved in the effort.
Kolfage took $350,000 for his personal use, the indictment said. A triple-amputee U.S. Air Force veteran, Kolfage formerly ran a company that made millions of dollars running right-wing media websites. He first pledged to send donations to the U.S. government when he launched the effort in December 2018, but then said he would use the money to hire private contractors and build the wall on their own.
More recently, Kolfage started a business to sell protective face masks to protect against the novel coronavirus. His lawyer declined comment.
The donors thought the money would go toward helping to build a border wall, prosecutors said. But Kolfage, whom they described as the public face and founder of the operation, received thousands of dollars that he used to fund a lavish lifestyle.
Trump fired Bannon after the adviser publicly disagreed with the administration’s North Korea policy. Trump later said Bannon had “lost his mind.”
Board members of We Build the Wall include Erik Prince, a former government contractor and brother of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
Kolfage appeared in federal court in Florida on Thursday. Bannon is set to appear in federal court in Manhattan. The other two defendants are due to appear in courts in Florida and Colorado.
(Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe, Jeff Mason, Mark Hosenball, Joseph Tanfani, Trevor Hunnicutt and Ted Hesson; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)