It is a safe assumption that anything associated with Donald Trump and his associates is a grift whose main purpose is to line the pockets of the well-connected. The arrest today of Steve Bannon, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and former close associate, and three others exposes the fraud behind the allegedly non-profit, “fully volunteer” organization called We Build the Wall that raked in millions of donations from the rubes supposedly to help build the border wall that has become the great white whale of Trump and his supporters.
The group’s website is a roll call of top figures in Republican and conservative circles.
It lists Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and a prominent Trump cheerleader, as its attorney general. Bannon was the advisory board chairman. Erik Prince, founder of the private military contractor Blackwater USA, is a member of the organization’s advisory board. Former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, an icon in conservative anti-immigration circles, is also on the advisory board, as is former Milwaukee county sheriff Dave Clarke and former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling.
Audrey Strauss, the acting district attorney for the southern district of New York, said Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato, and Timothy Shea engaged in a scheme to defraud donors to the fundraising campaign. We Build the Wall raised $25m to help fund a wall across the southern border of the United States. The wall has been Trump’s signature proposal since the beginning of his presidential campaign. It remains unfinished.
According to the charges, the men used the hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors to the fundraising campaign “in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations”. Kolfage took $350,000 “for his personal use” and Bannon funneled over $1m from the campaign through a nonprofit. The men, according to the charges, set up a system to route the donations through a non-profit and shell company handled by Shea.
The men used “fake invoices” and sham “vendor” arrangements” in the process, prosecutors said.
In particular, to induce donors to donate to the campaign, Kolfage repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and that “100% of the funds raised … will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose” because, as Bannon publicly stated, “we’re a volunteer organization.”
These people did not skimp when it came to siphoning money for their own use.
Kolfage used the money for expenses, such as “home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt”. The other men each siphoned “hundreds of thousands” in donations, it was said, which they used on personal expenses such as “travel, hotels, consumer goods and personal credit card debts”.
This organization was also providing some funding for the idiotic small stretch of wall being built on the banks of the Rio Grande that I wrote about earlier based on a ProPublica expose, where erosion is already taking a toll, though that money was leveraged, again using political connections, to get funding from the federal government.
On an odd note, Bannon was arrested while on a boat by agents of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is the criminal investigating arm of the Postal Service, the agency that Trump and the Republicans are trying to destroy.
So what is the betting on what will happen next? My guess is that Trump will initially distance himself from these people despite his close connections with them and then, just before he leaves office after losing in November, will pardon them, along with all the other crooks inside and outside his administration. [UPDATE; The distancing phase has already commenced.]
[Another update: On a trivial note, photographs of Bannon always show him with a beard stubble, like he didn’t have time to shave that morning. I know that sporting a few days growth has become popular among some celebrities but Bannon’s looks messier than theirs. Does he deliberately cultivate the unkempt look?]