Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The arrest of Trump’s ex-campaign chief and former White House advisor Steve Bannon, and three others, on federal charges that they defrauded those who donated to a nonprofit called – wait for it – We Build The Wall – has added one more big name to the list of Trump-adjacent figures who have found trouble with the law.
For years it’s seemed like a parade of conmen has trailed the President and that prosecutors have tried to pick them off one-by-one.
Federal authorities allege that Bannon and others broke their promise to direct millions of those donated dollars to the cause of securing the border with Mexico —the cause Donald Trump rode to political prominence in 2015. (Bannon’s lawyer entered a plea of not guilty Thursday and his client was set to be released on bail including a $5 million bond to be secured by $1.75 million in cash or real property.)
Upon hearing the news of yet another scandal, one’s natural response might well be: Of course.
Of course, the President’s former White House chief strategist is alleged to have swindled hundreds of thousands of Trump devotees out of more than $25 million.
Of course, his non-profit said the money was going to build a giant border wall, the one Trump said Mexico was going to pay for.
Of course, Bannon is charged with using hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal expenses after repeatedly promising all funds would go to that wall-building.
Of course, We Build the Wall hasn’t actually built much wall. How much? Published reports vary, but an investigation by the Texas Tribune and Propublica (published in July, before the indictment), and which paints an unflattering picture of engineering snafus and accusations of political shenanigans, puts it at around 3 miles.
Of course, Bannon said, upon leaving the courthouse, “This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall.”
And of course, the President distanced himself from the man who helped make him President, saying the whole notion of private funding for the wall was “inappropriate” and a case of “showboating.”
Read the indictment and you’ll find a recitation of allegations that shock the conscience, even one dulled by exposure to Trumpworld.
According to the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York:
- $1 million was sent from the wall-builder group to one of Bannon’s separate organizations so that some of it could be funneled “secretly” to We Build The Wall’s founder Brian Kolfage, who was also indicted. Bannon also allegedly used hundreds of thousands of it to cover his own personal expenses. (Kolfage did not immediately respond to requests for comments, CNN reported Thursday).
- Kolfage promised that 100% of donations would be devoted to erecting the wall
- Bannon and a venture capitalist named Andrew Badolato jumped into the operation after questions arose about Kolfage’s past. (Badolato did not immediately respond to requests for comments, CNN reported Thursday.) They repeatedly made public promises to potential donors that Kolfage would get none of WBTW’s money, and in text messages with Bannon, Badolato noted that Kolfage’s self-abnegation would confer upon him what he termed “saint hood” in the eyes of donors.
- Some donors “wrote directly to Kolfage that they did not have a lot of money and were skeptical about online fundraising campaigns, but they were giving what they could because they trusted Kolfage would keep his word about how their donations were being spent,” according to the indictment.
The scheme alleged by the prosecutors seems like the kind of fraud you might expect to be perpetrated by shady purveyors of penny stocks. To borrow from a Trump campaign phrase, promises were made…but apparently with no intention that they would be kept. Instead, recalling Trump’s say-anything style of operating, Bannon and the others made their pledges and, according to prosecutors, promptly abandoned them.
The indictment includes references to Bannon’s alleged desire to control how Kolfage would actually get paid. (He insisted in a text to Badolato: “no deals I don’t approve,” according to the indictment.)
With Bannon’s arrest, he returns to public view after a period when he seemed to have disappeared. A distinctively noticeable, if scruffy, presence (Trump called him “Sloppy Steve”) Bannon seemed to be everywhere in the run-up to the 2016 election and in the first year of the Trump presidency. In February 2017 he appeared on the cover of Time alongside the headline “The Great Manipulator.”
Bannon, a political propagandist, sold himself to the public with a story that included his claim that he was moved to outrage when his working-class father lost money in the stock market. Problem was Bannon was already engaged in his right-wing populism at the time his father lost that money. And his dad had made the decidedly risky choice to buy some of the stock he sold on an apparently bad tip—losing a hundred thousand dollars, Bannon told an interviewer–with borrowed money. As Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker would conclude, Steve Bannon’s origin claim was “political mythology.”
The journey from mythmaking to alleged fraud can be a very short one. Consider, for example, Donald Trump’s so-called “Trump University.” Trump agreed to pay $25 million in 2018 to settle claims from people who said they had been cheated by the “university.” (His lawyer said Trump had settled the case “without an acknowledgment of fault or liability,” according to the New York Times)
He then paid a $2 million penalty last December for misusing a nonprofit charity—the Donald J. Trump Foundation—controlled by him. The New York attorney general’s 2018 lawsuit in the matter, according to the Washington Post, alleged the President had illegally “used the charity’s cash to buy paintings of himself and sports memorabilia and to pay $258,000 in legal settlements for his for-profit clubs,” as well as make donation to political campaigns.
The foundation was shuttered, and the President agreed to comply with restrictions if he ever again undertakes charitable work in New York state.
Among the other Trump allies who have been indicted or imprisoned we can count the President’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort (Bannon effectively replaced him); his former lawyer, Michael Cohen; his one-time national security advisor, Michael Flynn; Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates; Representatives Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter (two early Trump supporters); and donor/political operatives Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges that they funneled foreign money into US elections. The two are linked closely with Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, and have aided Giuliani’s effort to compile what he has claimed is damaging information on Trump’s political rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, according to CNN reporting.
In every instance these are men who apparently promoted themselves with the kind of hype that connoisseurs of Trumpism would find familiar. This is the company the President keeps.
Still available for viewing on the morning of Bannon’s arrest, We Build the Wall’s website is a super-patriot mash-up that is also true to the Trump style. It features a photo of one of Bannon’s co-defendants, square-jawed Brian Kolfage, with a pile of medals pinned to his suit jacket. Click around and you’ll find photos of the usual cast of controversial characters, including the President and his son Donald Jr. (the latter appeared at a WBTW-sponsored symposium in July 2019); the former Milwaukee County sheriff and Trump acolyte, David Clarke, famous for his cowboy hat; and Kansas crusader Kris Kobach, who bellowed about widespread voter fraud but couldn’t find it after Trump put him in charge of a commission devoted to exposing it.
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From the focus of the wall-building non-profit to his arrest in Connecticut, aboard the yacht of exiled Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, irony abounds in faux-populist Steven Bannon’s case. It should be noted that investigators from the US Postal Service—much maligned by Trump as he faces an election that will be carried out in large part by mail-in vote– have been involved in the case, and that the Southern District of New York is bringing the case.
One can imagine the President’s pique over Bannon’s arrest coming on the day his rival Joe Biden was nominated at the Democratic National Convention. The President said during his 2016 campaign that he would hire “the best people.” Bannon is the latest in a seemingly ever-growing list of Trump associates to face federal criminal charges. Talk about contradicting the boss.