Image courtesy of The New York Times
By Fernando Cordova
On August 20, Steve Bannon, former White House Advisor to President Trump, was indicted and arrested on charges of wire fraud and money laundering. A former ally of the president and strategist behind his 2016 presidential campaign, he is one of the lastest individuals from Trump’s inner circle to have been charged with criminal activity. These charges were brought against Bannon as the result of an indictment which said that Bannon, along with US Veteran Brian Kolfage, self-profited from a GoFundMe campaign titled “We The People Will Fund The Wall,” aimed at funding President Trump’s wall along the US-Mexico border.
Originally, the GoFundMe campaign was created by Kolfage in 2018 in an effort to raise $1 billion to finance a wall along the southern border. In just the first week alone, the campaign raised almost $17 million. Several days before the revealing of the indictment and arrests, the campaign had already raised $25.6 million with more than 250,000 individual donors. However, as noted in the indictment brought forward by the Department of Justice, Steve Bannon, Brian Kolfage, and their associates Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, allegedly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the campaign to themselves. Steve Bannon is believed to have profited $1 million from the campaign.
As former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon was one of the most influential figures in the early days of the Trump White House before stepping down in August 2017. Now, Bannon is only the latest of former Trump associates, a number totaling seven, to have been charged with federal crimes. The most significant of these include Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Adviser; Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager; and Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer.
Although Steve Bannon faces up to 20 years in prison for the charges, he was eventually released from custody on a $5 million bond. Since, President Trump has sought to distance himself from Bannon and the entire situation altogether, even calling the GoFundMe project “inappropriate” and having been done for “showboating reasons.” However, despite denying involvement, Donald Trump Jr. promoted the “Build The Wall” project at an event in 2019, calling it a “private enterprise at its finest,” fueling speculation as to whether or not he was involved.
What is certain about the wire fraud/money laundering scheme is that it may be more complicated than it seemed. Since the “Build The Wall” campaign isn’t an actual non-profit, GoFundMe warned Brian Kolfage that if he didn’t find a legitimate non-profit organization, then all of the money would have to be returned to its donors; something which Kolfage has countered with by saying that only about $800,000 of the total money donated would have to be returned. In addition, Steven Bannon has been financially involved with fugitive Chinese billionaire, Guo Wengui, who is in exile from the Chinese government on criminal charges. This could implicate possible international involvement in the scheme. Bannon’s arrest took place on Wengui’s luxury yacht, where special agents from the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office seized several items including Mr. Bannon’s cellphone.
Although the GoFundMe page has been taken down, people could still continue to give money to the campaign via a new website https://webuildthewall.us, as noted by Brian Kolfage in a podcast just 24 hours after his arrest. “Don’t go to GoFundMe anymore,” Mr. Kolfage said. “Screw them. Go straight to our website.”