For­mer Trump strate­gist pleads not guilty to rip­ping off donors in bor­der wall scheme


NEW YORK — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s for­mer chief strate­gist, Steve Ban­non, was pulled from a lux­ury yacht and ar­rested Thurs­day on al­le­ga­tions that he and three as­so­ciates ripped off donors try­ing to fund a south­ern bor­der wall, mak­ing him the lat­est in a long list of Trump al­lies to be charged with a crime.

The or­ga­niz­ers of the “We Build The Wall” group por­trayed them­selves as ea­ger to help the pres­i­dent build a “big beau­ti­ful” bar­rier along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, as he promised dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign. They raised more than $25 mil­lion from thou­sands of donors and pledged that 100% of the money would be used for the pro­ject.

But ac­cord­ing to the crim­i­nal charges un­sealed Thurs­day, much of the money never made it to the wall. In­stead, it was used to line the pock­ets of group mem­bers, in­clud­ing Ban­non, who served in Trump’s White House and worked for his cam­paign. He al­legedly took over $1 mil­lion, us­ing some to se­cretly pay co-de­fen­dant Brian Kolfage, the founder of the pro­ject, and to cover hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in per­sonal ex­penses.

Hours af­ter his ar­rest, Ban­non pleaded not guilty dur­ing an ap­pear­ance in a Man­hat­tan fed­eral court. He is the lat­est ad­di­tion to a star­tlingly long list of Trump as­so­ciates who have been pros­e­cuted, in­clud­ing his for­mer cam­paign chair, Paul Manafort, whom Ban­non re­placed, his long­time lawyer, Michael Co­hen, and his for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Michael Flynn.

Trump has also made clear that he is will­ing to use his near-lim­it­less pardon power to help po­lit­i­cal al­lies es­cape le­gal jeop­ardy, most re­cently com­mut­ing the sen­tence of long­time po­lit­i­cal ad­viser Roger Stone.

Ban­non was taken into cus­tody around 7 a.m. by the U.S. Postal In­spec­tion Ser­vice on a 150-foot lux­ury yacht called Lady May, which was off the coast of Con­necti­cut, au­thor­i­ties said. The boat is owned by ex­iled Chi­nese bil­lion­aire Guo Wen­gui and cur­rently for sale for nearly $28 mil­lion. Ac­cord­ing to Ma­rine Traf­fic, a com­mer­cial track­ing ser­vice, the ves­sel’s transpon­der sig­nal went dark on June 17, shortly af­ter it de­parted a port in Con­necti­cut en route to Mi­ami, po­ten­tially in­di­cat­ing its bea­con was in­op­er­a­ble or had been turned off.

At his hear­ing, Ban­non ap­peared by video with his hands cuffed in front of him and a white mask cov­er­ing most of his face. He rocked back and forth on a chair in a hold­ing cell with his lawyers on the tele­phone. The mag­is­trate judge ap­proved Ban­non’s re­lease on $5 mil­lion bail, se­cured by $1.75 mil­lion in as­sets.

When he emerged from the court­house, Ban­non tore off his mask, smiled and waved to news cam­eras. As he went to a wait­ing ve­hi­cle, he shouted, “This en­tire fi­asco is to stop peo­ple who want to build the wall.”

Nei­ther Ban­non, nor his spokesper­son or at­tor­ney re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment Thurs­day. Kolfage did not re­spond ei­ther. Also charged were An­drew Badolato and Timothy Shea, the owner of an en­ergy drink com­pany called Win­ning En­ergy.

Other prom­i­nent mem­bers of the wall group in­cluded for­mer Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach, its gen­eral coun­sel; Erik Prince, founder of the con­tro­ver­sial se­cu­rity firm Black­wa­ter; for­mer Repub­li­can Rep. Tom Tan­credo of Colorado; and for­mer ma­jor league base­ball pitcher Curt Schilling. They were not named in the in­dict­ment.

Af­ter the ar­rest, Trump quickly dis­tanced him­self from Ban­non and the pro­ject.

“When I read about it, I didn’t like it. I said this is for gov­ern­ment, this isn’t for pri­vate peo­ple. And it sounded to me like show­boat­ing,” he told re­porters at the White House, adding that he felt “very badly” about the sit­u­a­tion.

An im­mi­gra­tion plan un­veiled by Trump last year in­cluded a pro­posal to al­low the pub­lic to do­nate to­ward his long-promised wall, as the Kolfage group had orig­i­nally said was its mis­sion be­fore shift­ing its fo­cus to pri­vate con­struc­tion. But Trump later de­nounced the pro­ject pub­licly, tweet­ing last month that he “dis­agreed with do­ing this very small (tiny) sec­tion of wall, in a tricky area, by a pri­vate group which raised money by ads” and claim­ing, “It was only done to make me look bad.”

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr told The As­so­ci­ated Press he had been made aware of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Ban­non months ago but did not say whether the pres­i­dent had been in­formed.

Ban­non, who served in the Navy and worked as an in­vest­ment banker at Gold­man Sachs and as a Hollywood pro­ducer be­fore turn­ing to pol­i­tics, now hosts a pro-Trump pod­cast called “War Room,” which be­gan dur­ing the pres­i­dent’s im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings.

A day be­fore the in­dict­ment was un­sealed, Kolfage was a fea­tured guest on the show and so­licited do­na­tions.

Steve Ban­non


Steve Ban­non said out­side of court on Thurs­day, “This en­tire fi­asco is to stop peo­ple who want to build the wall.”

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