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Federal prosecutors allege that Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist and 2016 presidential campaign CEO, along with “We Build the Wall” founder Brian Kolfage and two others, defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with a private crowdfunding campaign.
Trump called Bannon’s arrest “a very sad thing” but distanced himself from the project, saying that he knew nothing about it or “any of the other people” involved.
Trump in July criticized privately-constructed border barriers after experts warned that some sections could fall into the river.
President Donald Trump is distancing himself from a private border wall project after federal prosecutors allege that some of those involved defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors and used the money on lavish purchases and personal expenses.
"I know nothing about the project other than I didn't like when I read about it, I didn't like it," Trump told reporters in a press briefing shortly after the arrests were announced Aug. 20.
Among those arrested: Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist and 2016 presidential campaign CEO. Prosecutors allege that Bannon and three others defrauded donors to We Build the Wall, a nonprofit created to help fund construction of a wall along the Mexican border.
According to the indictment, Bannon and We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage and two others, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, capitalized on donors’ "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."
Prosecutors say that the defendants engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds. "As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth," Inspector-in-Charge Philip R. Bartlett said Aug. 20.
Trump said that not only did he not know about the project, but that border wall construction should be left to the government. (PolitiFact rated Trump’s pledge to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it as a Promise Broken.) Other Republicans said Trump did know about the project and that it had his blessing.
In his statements about the arrests, Trump told reporters "It sounded to me like showboating and I think I let my opinion be very strongly stated at the time. I didn't like it, it was showboating and maybe looking for funds, but you'll have to see what happens. I think it's a very sad thing for Mr. Bannon, I think it’s surprising."
PolitiFact first wrote about the We Build the Wall project when it was in its beginning stages in late 2018. Here’s what we know now.
We Build the Wall started when Kolfage, a triple-amputee Iraq war veteran from Florida, created a fundraiser to help pay for Trump’s promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kolfage, who ran a website called "Right Wing News" which has been cited by fact-checkers for promoting false and inflammatory content, established a GoFundMe page called "We The People Will Fund The Wall" in the face of a partial government shutdown after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on funding the construction of the wall.
On the fundraiser page, Kolfage promised contributors that "100 percent of your donations will go to the Trump Wall" and said he contacted the White House to "secure a point of contact where all the funds will go upon completion."
It was an immediate success, raising over $12 million in its first five days.
Kolfage even included a section titled "How do you know this is not a scam?" under which he stated that he was a "credible and real person" and asked donors to look up his background and pointed to a verified Facebook page and personal website.
But, according to authorities, it was a scam.
Federal prosecutors said in a news release that Bannon, Kolfage, Badolato and Shea defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with the crowdfunding campaign, which ended up raising more than $25 million.
Trump’s claim that he knows nothing about the We Build the Wall project is contradicted by public statements made by Kolfage and Kris Kobach, a Trump supporter and former Kansas secretary of state. We Build The Wall’s website’s "Our Team" page describes Kobach as general counsel and advisory board member. (As CNN reported, Trump also knows other people listed in We Build the Wall's advisory board, including former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.)
Kobach in January 2019 told the New York Times that Trump in a phone conversation that month gave the project his "blessing." Kobach claimed that Trump said, "the project has my blessing, and you can tell the media that." The White House did not comment for that story.
Kolfage in December 2019 claimed to be in touch with Trump.
"I talked to the president and told him @WeBuildtheWall is ready to build the government wall across the @NatButterflies property on the river bank, saving the butterfly property from being cut in half from the Army Corps wall. We will save Texas and butterflies!" Kolfage tweeted Dec. 26.
Kolfage in July also claimed to have the support of the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection.
"The private wall that @WeBuildtheWall built and funded is @DHSgov @CBP ENDORSED and APPROVED. Never forget it," Kolfage tweeted July 12. His tweet included a short video of a Border Patrol official saying "this current private wall that was built, from what I have learned has been very effective."
We Build the Wall contributed to the construction of small sections of border barriers along the riverbank of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Texas, slightly less than five miles in all, according to the project’s website.
But environmental groups have challenged the impact of those sections. And after experts warned that some sections could fall into the river, Trump tweeted his displeasure with the private barrier constructions.
"I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles," Trump tweeted July 12.
Before Trump’s recent public distancing from We Build the Wall, the group sought to associate itself with the Trump family and administration.
We Build the Wall’s Instagram account on Feb. 25, 2019 shared a picture of Kolfage with his wife and Trump’s son, Eric. The post with the picture said Kolfage founded the movement to privately fund Trump’s promised border wall and "was recognized this weekend for this incredible effort with the American Patriot Award at Mar-A-Lago."
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., also publicly supported the private construction during a July 2019 event hosted by We Build the Wall in Sunland Park, N.M. Trump Jr. thanked Kolfage for showing "really what capitalism is all about."
"This is private enterprise at its finest. Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else. What you guys are doing is amazing," Trump Jr. said.
A spokesperson for the Trump Organization said Trump Jr. had no involvement with the effort beyond praising it at that one event, CNN reported Aug. 20.
Kolfage and Badolato were arrested in Florida. Shea, who prosecutors said devised a scheme to route payments through a shell company he owned, was arrested in Colorado.
According to the indictment, Kolfage and Bannon exerted significant control over the project. Kolfage professed to donors that he wouldn’t 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, and Bannon described We Build the Wall as a "volunteer organization."
Bannon worked through a nonprofit organization that he controlled and received over $1 million from We Build The Wall, prosecutors said, which he used to, among other things, pay Kolfage and cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.
Kolfage allegedly took more than $350,000 from the donations and used it on home renovations, cosmetic surgery, boat payments, and other lavish purchases.
Besides funneling money through Shea’s shell company, the men also concealed payments by using fake invoices and sham "vendor" arrangements, prosecutors said.
WhiteHouse.gov, Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi of the Republic of Iraq Before Bilateral Meeting, Aug. 20, 2020
New York Times, Steve Bannon Is Charged With Fraud in We Build the Wall Campaign, Aug. 20, 2020; Kris Kobach Wants to Build the Wall His Way, and Says He Has the President’s Blessing, Jan. 25, 2019; David Clarke, Milwaukee County Sheriff and Trump Supporter, Resigns, Aug. 31, 2017
Justice.gov, U.S. v. Brian Kolfage, Stephen Bannon, et al. indictment, Aug. 20, 2020
PolitiFact, Man behind viral border wall GoFundMe fundraiser also peddled false news, Dec. 21, 2018
PolitiFact Trump-O-Meter, Donald Trump promised to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it. That didn’t happen, July 15, 2020
ProPublica, He Built a Privately Funded Border Wall. It’s Already at Risk of Falling Down if Not Fixed., July 2, 2020
Twitter, Donald Trump tweet, July 12, 2020
Instagram, We Build the Wall Instagram account, Feb. 25, 2019
YouTube, We Build the Wall channel - Symposium at the Wall: Cartels, Trafficking, and Asylum, July 26, 2019
The Wall Street Journal, U.S. Government Shuts Down Over Border Wall Funding, Dec. 22, 2018