Bannon Charged with Fraud Involving Multi-Million Dollar Online Fundraiser

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon gives a speech during the Respect for Life Prayer Breakfast in Dickson City, Pa. on March 7, 2020.

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon gives a speech during the Respect for Life Prayer Breakfast in Dickson City, Pa. on March 7, 2020. (Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune, via AP)

August 20, 2020

Jan. 20, 2021, update: In the last hours of his term, President Donald Trump pardoned Steve Bannon and issued pardons or commutations to over 140 other people.

Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon on Thursday was arrested and charged with defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors as part of a lucrative online fundraising effort called “We Build the Wall.”

The campaign amassed more than $25 million in donations, ostensibly to help President Trump’s promise to build a wall along the U.S. southern border. Yet more than $1 million was siphoned off for personal expenses by organizers including Bannon, federal authorities said in announcing the charges.

The indictment is a major blow for Bannon, a bombastic figure on the far right who rose to prominence as a policy adviser and speech writer on the Trump campaign, and entered the White House determined to implement Trump’s campaign promises, like the border wall. As detailed by FRONTLINE in the 2017 film Bannon’s War and in numerous interviews with FRONTLINE journalists, the former Breitbart News editor also engineered the sweeping executive order that restricted Muslims from entering the United States, and held such sway over the president that Time magazine dubbed him “Manipulator in Chief.” He left the White House in August 2017 amid fallout from Trump’s remarks about the violence that erupted during protests in Charlottesville, Va. but has continued to promote the president and his agenda, as detailed in the 2019 film Zero Tolerance.

Bannon was charged alongside Brian Kolfage, who founded the campaign, and two others. “While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” said Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who announced the charges and has been involved in multiples cases against the president’s associates.

The group allegedly routed payments through avenues including a non-profit organization controlled by Bannon, the statement said. Bannon reportedly took more than $1 million from the campaign, using at least some of the money for personal expenses. Kolfage received more than $350,000, according to the indictment.

Other agencies contributed to the investigation, including U.S. attorneys in northern Florida and U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

“This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist,” said Philip R. Bartlett, the Postal Service’s inspector-in-charge of the New York field office, in a statement announcing the charges.

The four defendants have been charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count each of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.Each of the defendants will be presented before a judge on Thursday, the statement said.

Watch Bannon’s full interviews with FRONTLINE through our Transparency Project here.

—Gabrielle Schonder contributed reporting.

Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



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