President Trump issued a pardon to Steve Bannon on his final day in office, reversing criminal charges the former campaign CEO and one-time White House chief strategist faced for his role in an alleged “We Build the Wall” scam that raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting donors.
The pardon appeared among many others granted clemency in a list announced by the White House early Wednesday morning, just hours before President-elect Joe Biden was sworn in to office, and as Trump faces a Senate impeachment trial for a charge of incitement of insurrection in connection to the Jan. 6 Capitol siege.
“President Trump granted a full pardon to Stephen Bannon. Prosecutors pursued Mr. Bannon with charges related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project. Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen,” the statement said.
Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, unsealed indictments in August for Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato, and Timothy Shea, the four men who led a We Build the Wall fundraiser that sought donations to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that would fulfill a 2016 campaign promise from Trump. The group raised more than $25 million.
All four men were arrested and charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, each of which could’ve resulted in up to 20 years in prison.
“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. Bannon pleaded not guilty in the summer, claiming the charges were a “political hit job,” and was released on bond while awaiting trial.
The complaint against the four men provided details about the fundraising scheme, stating that “the public narrative deliberately crafted” by Bannon, Kolfage, and Badolato “was false” because “in fact, although We Build the Wall spent money on the construction of a border wall, hundreds of thousands of dollars were siphoned out of We Build The Wall for the personal use and benefit” of Bannon and the other three.
When Bannon was indicted on fraud charges in August, he was found by U.S. authorities aboard a $24 million yacht owned by Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who has been accused by the Chinese government of committing fraud, blackmail, and bribery and is currently a fugitive living in the United States. Guo has denied the allegations.
Bannon, 67, was the former head of Breitbart News and CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign before serving as a chief strategist in the White House. He left that role in August 2017. Kolfage is a U.S. Air Force veteran and triple amputee and the founder of We Build The Wall, which purported to raise money to build a privately constructed wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
The White House immediately distanced itself from Bannon after news of his arrest.
“As everyone knows, President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat and perhaps raise funds,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at the time, adding, “President Trump has not been involved with Steve Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the administration, and he does not know the people involved with this project.”
Bannon, Kolfage, Badolato, and Shea “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors … in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign ultimately known as ‘We Build The Wall’ that raised more than $25 million,” according to prosecutors. Prosecutors said, “To induce donors to donate to the campaign,” Kolfage “repeatedly and falsely assured the public” that “100% of the funds raised … will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose” because, as Bannon himself claimed publicly, “we’re a volunteer organization.” But, prosecutors said, “those representations were false.”
Prosecutors said the four men “received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donor funds from We Build the Wall, which they each used in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations.” Prosecutors specifically said Bannon, “through a non-profit organization under his control, received over $1 million from We Build the Wall,” at least some of which he used “to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars” in his “personal expenses.”
Trump and Bannon have had a tumultuous relationship, with Bannon exiting the White House in 2017 and, after Bannon served as a source for the controversial book, Fire and Fury, in 2018, where Bannon was quoted as saying that the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting was potentially “treasonous.” Trump tweeted in response that the book was “full of lies, misrepresentations, and sources that don’t exist” and criticized Bannon as “Sloppy Steve!” But Bannon worked, apparently successfully, to get back into Trump’s good graces, including by saying that Donald Trump Jr. was ”both a patriot and a good man” and that his comments had actually been aimed at former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
In November, an account for Bannon’s War Room: Pandemic show was banned from Twitter after a video was posted in which he said he would like to see Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray beheaded. “I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England, I’d put the heads on pikes, right, I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats,” Bannon said.
In the intervening months, Bannon has offered his show as a platform for Trump allies, including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to air unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Bannon took the reins of Trump’s campaign in August 2016 following the departure of Manafort, a GOP lobbyist who also spent years working overseas in places like Ukraine. Manafort was convicted of a host of financial crimes arising from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report concluded Manafort posed a “grave counterintelligence threat” due to his Russia connections.
Bannon testified during the trial of Trump associate and “dirty trickster” Roger Stone in November 2019, telling the jury that “it was generally believed that the access point or the potential access point to WikiLeaks was Roger Stone … because Roger told me he had a relationship with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.” Stone was convicted on charges of lying to Congress but not with engaging in a conspiracy with the Russians. Trump pardoned Stone and Manafort in December.
Mueller’s investigation concluded that the Russian government interfered in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” according to his report that was released in April 2019. Mueller’s team also “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign” but “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz identified a litany of problems related to the Trump-Russia investigation and criticized the FBI’s reliance upon British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s discredited dossier to obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants.
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