Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to President Trump and integral part of his 2016 presidential campaign, was arrested on Thursday and charged with defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors to attract funds for the “We Build The Wall” campaign.
The private effort, started by Bannon along with Andrew Batolato, Brian Kolfage and Timothy Shea, was started with the promise to potential donors that their money was going to construction of the wall on the border with Mexico, President Trump’s signature campaign promise. The fundraising effort raised over $25 million, with Bannon spending nearly $1 million on personal expenses, according to prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s office of Manhattan.
In cooperation with the Coast Guard, special agents from the Manhattan office arrested Bannon in Westbrook, CT, where he had been staying on the yacht of one of his business associates, fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui. A New York judge set bail of five million dollars for Bannon, who pled not guilty to charges of wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Bannon, as he was walking out of the courthouse, claimed this was part of a conspiracy to stop Trump from fulfilling his promise.
“This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” Bannon said.
From the White House, Trump quickly clarified that he knew “nothing” about the activities of his former adviser.
“I don’t know anything about this project,” he said from the Oval Office. “I haven’t had contact with him in a long time.”
In regards to Bannon’s project, Trump steered clear of supporting it.
“I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons,” said Trump with a stern gesture, and assured that it always seemed “inappropriate” to pay for the construction of the border wall with private donations.
According to a federal indictment filed by acting United States Attorney Audrey Strauss, Kolfage also spent nearly $350,000 on various personal expenses as well.
With the arrest of Bannon, there are now seven close Trump associates who have been prosecuted or convicted since he assumed the presidency in 2016. Roger Stone, sentenced in February to 40 months in prison for various crimes, including obstruction of the congressional investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign team and Russia, was pardoned in July by the president. Bannon and Stone are joined by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his partner Rick Gates, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.