Steve Bannon, architect of Trump's 2016 win, charged with defrauding border-wall donors
Trump: I feel very badly. I haven't been dealing with him for a long time
Steve Bannon, an architect of President Donald Trump's 2016 election victory, has been charged with defrauding Trump supporters in a campaign to help build his signature wall along the US-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 helped define Trump's 3-1/2 years in office. Trump fired Bannon in August 2017.
Bannon was among four people arrested on Thursday and charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in an indictment secured by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
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.
They each face up to 40 years in prison.
Prosecutors said Bannon received more than $1 million of that money through an unnamed nonprofit organisation.
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 and activist headed the right-wing Breitbart News before running Trump's campaign. He later returned to that job, but quit after angering Trump. He has also tried to promote a variety of right-wing causes and candidates in the United States and abroad.
"I feel very badly. I haven't been dealing with him for a long time," Trump told reporters at the White House. Trump said he did not know much about the project.
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 wall along the US-Mexico border - a key 2016 campaign promise - in the fact of court challenges, logistical hurdles and opposition from Democrats in Congress.
In the meantime, 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. Those efforts likewise have met with limited success.
The indictment comes as Trump trails in opinion polls behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden ahead of the November 3 presidential election.
Also charged 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, according to the indictment. A triple-amputee US 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. He could not immediately be reached for 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 US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
Kolfage is due to appear in federal court later on Thursday in Florida, while Bannon is set to appear in federal court in Manhattan. The other two defendants are due to appear in courts in the Middle District of Florida and Colorado.
The charges are being handled by the same federal office that prosecuted Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and is investigating his current lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. The office's top prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, was abruptly ousted by Attorney General William Barr earlier this year.
The charges were announced on the same day that Trump faced another legal setback, with a judge dismissing his lawsuit trying to shield his personal and corporate tax records from release.
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