Steve Bannon, who as Donald Trump’s former chief strategist was one of the main architects of the president’s “America First” agenda, was reportedly arrested on board a boat off the coast of Connecticut Thursday morning and indicted on charges that he defrauded donors to a border wall fundraiser. According to New York prosecutors, Bannon, Brian Kolfage, and two other leaders of “We Build The Wall,” a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $25 million for a barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border, improperly pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars they said would be spent on construction and tried to cover up the scheme by “creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations.”
“The defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors,” acting United States Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement Thursday, “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.”
“This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters,” added inspector-in-charge Philip R. Bartlett, “that no one is above the law.”
Bannon rose to prominence as the many-shirted co-founder of Breitbart News, which he described in 2016 as the “platform of the alt-right.” Bannon joined the Trump campaign in August of that year as chief executive officer and, after helping him win the election, was named the president’s chief strategist. He was seen as a powerful force in the early days of the Trump White House, so much so that he was sometimes called “President Bannon”—much to the chagrin of the actual president, who can’t stand being upstaged. Tensions between the two mounted for months, until Bannon left the administration in August 2017, following the riot in Charlottesville in which white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with counter protesters, leaving one woman dead.
In addition to supporting far-right figures around the world, Bannon went on to join We Build The Wall, a fundraising campaign and nonprofit founded by Kolfage, an Air Force veteran and rising conservative star. Ostensibly, it was a campaign to raise money to build a border wall, the unfinished symbol of Trump’s immigration crackdown, which he’d promised Mexico would pay for. According to prosecutors, it looked more like an email harvesting operation that helped to fund Kolfage’s “lavish lifestyle,” as Strauss put it Thursday.
Bannon is the latest former Trump official to run afoul of the law, joining former campaign figures like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Michael Flynn. As is often the case, the indictment raises the specter of trouble for Trump himself, should Bannon talk to prosecutors. Manafort, Stone, and Flynn mostly kept quiet, and the latter two were rewarded for their loyalty; Trump commuted Stone’s sentence earlier this summer, and William Barr’s Justice Department abruptly dropped its case against Flynn. (Manafort continues to serve his sentence, albeit in home confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) It’s not clear, though, if Trump can count on Bannon to keep his mouth shut, given his history of sounding off to journalists like Michael Wolff. Among the Bannon claims reported in Wolff’s books: That the Trump family business is a “criminal enterprise.”
Bannon, Kolfage, Andrew Badolato, and Timothy Shea were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering—charges that could each carry up to 20-year prison sentences. Neither Trump nor the White House had commented on the indictments early Thursday morning. Bannon is due in a New York court later Thursday.
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— How Jared Kushner’s Secret Coronavirus Testing Plan “Went Poof Into Thin Air”
— Why Trump’s Black Lives Matter Protest Response Could Cost Him 2020
— Behind the Scenes of the NBA’s Dystopian COVID-Free Bubble
— Experts Worry Trump’s DHS Crackdowns Ignore the Real Threat
— How Carlos Ghosn Escaped Japan, According to the Ex-Soldier Who Snuck Him Out
— Former Pandemic Officials Call Trump’s Coronavirus Response a National Disaster
— From the Archive: The Untold Story of Dallas’s Heroic Ebola Response
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hive newsletter and never miss a story.
Get your CompTIA A+, Network+ White Hat-Hacker, Certified Web Intelligence Analyst and more starting at $35 a month. Click here for more details.