Steve Bannon, who served as President Trump’s chief White House strategist up until August 2017, was arrested Thursday on charges relating to misusing funds raised for constructing a private wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss charged Bannon and three other individuals with defrauding donors by promising to spend the money on building border wall projects located on private lands through an organization called “We Build the Wall.” Instead, they raised millions of dollars and used it for their own personal expenses.
“As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, 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,” Strauss said.
“We Build the Wall” is a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding and building a wall on the Mexico-U.S. border. It was created by Brian Kolfage, a veteran who said he started the nonprofit because was upset with lawmakers in Washington for blocking Trump’s attempts to construct a wall, which was one of his key campaign promises in 2016.
Kolfage had previously promised that he would “not take a penny of compensation” from the funds raised for “We Build the Wall.” But according to the criminal complaint filed against the four individuals on Thursday, Kolfage received more than $350,000 from the organization’s coffers.
Each of the four members involved has been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Bannon had served as Trump’s White House chief strategist, but was fired by the president in the week after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in a number of injuries and death of activist Heather Heyer.
Trump and Bannon have maintained an uneasy relationship after the latter left the White House. In 2019, Bannon praised Trump while discussing potential Democratic candidates that might run against him in the 2020 election.
“Nice to see that one of my best pupils is still a giant Trump fan,” Trump tweeted at the time.
But Trump indirectly took a jab at Bannon after a three-mile border wall project the group had built in Texas showed signs of deterioration. Rainfall from Hurricane Hanna earlier this year resulted in erosion that threatened the stability of the wall the organization built on private land alongside the Rio Grande (though structural issues also existed before the hurricane’s arrival).
Trump described the failed project as a purposeful slight against him. “It was only done to make me look bad,” he said.
Though the president added that he had disagreed from the start about the privately funded wall being produced, it appears that members of his own family were in support of the project. A quote from Donald Trump Jr. is featured on the group’s website, in which he gives glowing praise to its ambitions.
“This is private enterprise at its finest,” Trump Jr. is quoted as saying. “Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else and what you guys are doing is pretty amazing.”