Brian Kolfage had a problem. It was late 2018, and the triple-amputee and Air Force veteran had just started a GoFundMe page where devotees of President Donald Trump could donate money to help build a wall on the southern border, helping fulfill a long-running Trump campaign promise. The effort, called We Build the Wall, was a smashing success: It racked up $20 million in donations in its first week. But GoFundMe suspended the campaign soon after its launch, until Kolfage could prove the money was going to a legitimate nonprofit.
In stepped Steve Bannon, fresh off a seven-month stint in Trump’s White House and a key role in the president’s 2016 campaign. He provided We Build the Wall with the much-needed nonprofit organization and so much more: strategic guidance, plugs in conservative media and the stamp of approval from someone in Trumpworld. He also enlisted several prominent far-right figures for a 2019 Arizona event to promote the scheme.
Bannon helped launch an endeavor Donald Trump Jr. called “private enterprise at its finest.” That story ended Thursday with a wide-ranging federal indictment charging Bannon, Kolfage and two alleged co-conspirators with defrauding donors to We Build the Wall.
The indictment alleges that some donors contacted Kolfage and said that, although they did not have a lot of money, “they were giving what they could because they trusted” the group to use it on a border wall. Instead, Bannon and his co-conspirators used the money to subsidize a lavish lifestyle of speedboats, cars, cosmetic surgery and travel, according to federal prosecutors. HuffPost interviewed some of the donors on Thursday who now feel “taken.”
The alleged scheme amounts to a coordinated fleecing of some of President Trump’s most loyal supporters, and the ties to the White House go much further than Bannon. Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf appears to have been in contact with We Build the Wall organizers and even visited the project site less than a year ago, as federal investigators were closing in. A powerful GOP “super lawyer” acted as the nonprofit front group’s legal counsel. A HuffPost analysis of social media and the public record shows repeated contacts between Kolfage and both of Trump’s adult sons, including during an event at Mar-a-Lago, a Trump-owned resort in Florida. And in some instances, the president himself appears to have brushed up against the scheme.
There are questions, in fact, as to whether Attorney General William Barr’s sudden and confusing attempt to help remove U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who oversaw the Manhattan office that just produced this indictment, earlier this summer was a failed effort to keep the public from learning of a damning accusation: that several people in Trump’s orbit were running a huge scam on his voters.
“I Feel Taken”
The indictment from the Southern District of New York charges Bannon, Kolfage, Florida venture capitalist Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea of Colorado with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
At the time Kolfage launched the GoFundMe campaign, Congress was locked in a fight over government funds for the border wall, which Trump had famously pledged Mexico would pay for. Kolfage, already known for earning an income off online far-right content, told HuffPost at the time that he had no plan for what to do with the money.
Bannon and Badolato offered a lifeline, a nonprofit 501(c)(4) that Bannon controlled to satisfy GoFundMe’s demands for clarity. They also changed the mission of Kolfage’s campaign to one that would “privately” build the wall instead of just giving the funds to the government.
To further convince GoFundMe they weren’t running a scam, the group told both the platform and the donors that 100% of their contributions would go to the project and that Kolfage would earn no salary or compensation.
“Everyone who donates right now, your money goes toward this wall — 100% of your money goes toward this wall,” Kolfage insisted in a video advertisement on Facebook. “It’s not going to line someone’s pocket. I’m taking zero dollars as a salary. No compensation. It’s going toward the wall.”
Privately, Kolfage struck a deal with Bannon and Badolato to earn $100,000 from the wall funds immediately and $20,000 per month after that, according to the indictment. “[A]s far as [the public] know[s] no one is getting paid... [s]alaries will never be disclosed,” Kolfage told Badolato in a text exchange. And in April, according to prosecutors, Kolfage and Shea, who had an earlier wall-funding scheme, set up a shell company to pay themselves tens of thousands of dollars more from the GoFundMe campaign by claiming to provide services to We Build the Wall. Badolato and Bannon also used hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for the wall for their personal expenses, the indictment contends.
As news of the fraud charges broke on Thursday, donors grappled with the realization that they may have been conned.
“I feel taken,” said 56-year-old Barbara Copeland, a Trump supporter in South Carolina who said she donated $100 to We Build the Wall last year. “I too fell for [Kolfage’s claims that he was] never going to use a dime of it for personal use.”
Copeland had spent months aggressively promoting the fundraiser on social media and said she had repeatedly encouraged her friends and family members to donate.
“I do not donate just willy-nilly, I checked it out — or so I thought,” she added, noting that in retrospect the “lavish lifestyle” Kolfage flaunted on his Instagram account could have been a warning sign. “To say that I’m upset is a gross understatement.”
The scheme even ripped off children. One of the biggest donors to We Build the Wall was a 7-year-old in Texas who set up a hot chocolate stand so he could collect donations for the effort. Benton Stevens watched Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address and decided to help with the border wall effort — though his parents, active Republicans, told local media in 2019 that their dinner table conversations “may have rubbed off” on him.
Already having offered tours of his fossil collection for $2, Benton thought the hot chocolate sales would be a good way to help the We Build the Wall effort. So he did, and the money poured in — along with insults. People online called the second-grader a “little Hitler.” (His father told local television in Texas at the time that “If he’s going to do it, he needs to learn that there’s going to be a little backlash.”)
Bannon featured Stevens and his parents at a July 26, 2019, fundraiser, announcing that he had raised $25,000 for the effort. “Thank you to the We Build the Wall crew,” said Benton’s father, Shane Stevens. “I love what they’re doing here today.”
Stevens did not respond to requests for comment on the revelation that the campaign was a scam.
Trump claimed on Thursday that he doesn’t “know anything about the [We Build the Wall] project at all,” and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said that he “does not know the people involved with this project.” But last August, Amanda Shea — Timothy Shea’s wife and a member of We Build the Wall’s leadership team — said on Twitter that she had met with the president and discussed the project in detail.
“Had the pleasure of meeting with @realDonaldTrump personally last week in the Hamptons, answered very specific questions about the wall @WeBuildTheWall built,” she tweeted. “[Trump] said I really know my stuff & our group needs to bid the whole wall project.”
Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, an adviser for the Trump reelection campaign, were prominently featured on the We Build the Wall website with quotes praising the project. They also were key speakers at a fundraising event.
“This is private enterprise at its finest,” Trump Jr. said of We Build the Wall. “What you guys are doing is pretty amazing. Started from a grassroots effort and it’s just doing some wonderful things for an important issue.”
The Trump Organization downplayed Trump Jr.’s connection to the group. Spokesperson Amanda Miller told The New York Times: “Don gave one speech at a single We Build the Wall event over a year ago with a group of angel moms and besides that, has no involvement with their organization.” He was unaware of his quote praising the group being used on its website, and that praise “was based on what he was led to believe” about its mission, Miller said.
″[I]f he and others were deceived, the group deserves to be held accountable for their actions,” Miller said.
But that’s not true, HuffPost found. As part of a fundraising promotion, We Build the Wall offered free, autographed copies of Trump Jr.’s book, “Triggered,” to people donating at least $75. And Instagram posts from Kolfage and We Build the Wall suggest Trump Jr. directly interacted with the group again in November.
“[We Build the Wall representative] FOREMAN MIKE will be in Florida TOMORROW with Donald Trump Jr. at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort!” the organization announced in a post on Nov. 7. The next day, Kolfage posted a photo of himself with a small group of people including Trump Jr. and “Foreman Mike.” Kolfage shared the same image to his website, captioning it, “Brian Kolfage and Donald Trump Jr. During a Recent Visit to the Border Wall.”
Trump ally Kris Kobach, an immigration hard-liner and former Kansas secretary of state who led Trump’s failed investigation of alleged voter fraud, also served on We Build the Wall’s advisory board. Kobach said the plan had Trump’s personal approval.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf visited the group’s building site just months ago, Yahoo News revealed. And in a photo of Kolfage and his wife with Trump’s second son, Eric Trump, at Mar-A-Lago in 2019, We Build the Wall claimed that Kolfage was “given American Patriot Award for his efforts in privately building the border wall.”
All of these ties helped We Build the Wall promote itself as closely aligned with Trump. Along with the praise from Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle on the organization’s site, it highlights comments from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a Trump booster infamous for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim statements; Corey Lewandowski, one of Trump’s 2016 campaign managers; and Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol officers.
Wolf, the acting DHS secretary, also lent some legitimacy to the project by meeting with some of its board members in Washington, Yahoo News reported in November. DHS did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Wolf’s interactions with the group or the federal indictment.
Rising GOP stars have been in touch with We Build the Wall recently, too. Madison Cawthorn, the Republican nominee for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District who recently got into hot water for an Instagrammed trip to Hitler’s vacation house in Germany, appeared in a late July Instagram post from Kolfage that said: “Pumped to see @madisoncawthorn make it out to the ‘people’s wall’ he’s one of my favorite patriots, he bleeds red, white and blue.”
And the nonprofit Bannon used to funnel We Build the Wall Funds also has deep ties to the larger Republican infrastructure. The indictment alleges that Bannon received more than $1 million from We Build the Wall to something referred to only as “Non-Profit-1” but which is described as a 501(c)(4) group focused on “promoting American nationalism and economic sovereignty.” That closely matches the description of Citizens of the American Republic, a Bannon-run 501(c)(4) that “seeks to advance the ideals of Economic Nationalism and American Sovereignty,” according to the group’s website. Later in the indictment, prosecutors ask for the forfeiture of “any and all funds” held in a Wells Fargo bank account belonging to Citizens of the American Republic.
COAR was the main vehicle Bannon used in his quixotic 2018 quest to keep the House of Representatives in Republican control and protect Trump from impeachment. Bannon claimed at the time that the group would spend $3 million on digital ads to get out the vote for that year’s midterm elections. He traveled across the country to promote various Republican candidates and also plug his film “Trump@War.”
The group’s tax returns for 2018, during a run of high publicity for the group, list slightly less than $4.5 million in contributions and grants. The 2019 tax returns are not yet public, but even if COAR matched that fundraising total that year, the $1 million it got from We Build the Wall would have constituted a sizable share of COAR’s income.
Groups designated as 501(c)(4)s, often referred to as dark money, are not required to disclose their donors or very much else about their funding sources. Bannon wanted to keep it that way. In mid-2019, CNBC reported that Bannon hired a GOP “super lawyer” named Cleta Mitchell as COAR’s legal counsel. At the time, CNBC noted Bannon was trying to “protect the identity of his contributors and works to stay in the good graces of President Donald Trump.”
Mitchell is a partner at the high-powered law firm Foley & Lardner and has served as a chair of the American Conservative Union Foundation and as president of the Republican National Lawyers Association. In 2018, she drew the attention of Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee for her work on behalf of the National Rifle Association in 2016, and they included her in a list of witnesses they hoped to interview about Russian interference in the last presidential election because they believed she “may be able to clarify for the Committee any Russian-related approaches to and interaction with the organization [NRA] and persons of interest to the Committee during the 2016 election.” She was never interviewed.
The indictment says that in October 2019, Bannon and his co-defendants “learned that We Build The Wall might be under federal criminal investigation” and began taking aggressive actions to conceal their alleged fraud. Mitchell declined to elaborate to HuffPost if Bannon shared those concerns with her, as legal counsel of the group that received $1 million from We Build the Wall, according to the indictment. “I cannot discuss anything with you about my work for COAR.” It is not clear if she is still working for the group.
But she has remained active in Republican politics. Just this week, when Trump posthumously pardoned Susan B. Anthony at a White House event, Mitchell was photographed beaming directly over his right shoulder.
Mitchell told HuffPost she has not discussed her work for COAR “with anyone else, including but not limited to the President. Any suggestion by you to the contrary would be false.”
Help From The Far Right
In “Wall-A-Thon” videos shot in front of mounds of dirt and rocks with construction workers moving in the background, Bannon came off like a downmarket Jerry Lewis, beseeching viewers to send in money while a ticker at the bottom of the screen scrolled through donor names and dollar amounts.
In July 2019, to supercharge contributions, the organization held a three-day “symposium” on private land in New Mexico near the border. Bannon and his team assembled a motley collection of far-right propagandists, white nationalists and social media “influencers” to promote the project. Many of these extremists had been instrumental in spreading agitprop and disinformation in 2016 to help Trump get elected. It was an easy network for Bannon to tap into.
One panel was headlined by Mike Cernovich, an alt-right grifter who spearheaded the Pizzagate disinformation campaign. Cernovich used his time to smear the mainstream media as “fake news.” When asked for his thoughts on the QAnon disinformation campaign, which the FBI considers a potential national security threat, said, “I’m happy that people believe in something.”
Other speakers at the event included Michelle Malkin, who now collaborates openly with white nationalists, who ranted about communists and anarchists and warned that the resettlement of Muslim refugees could destroy America; Candace Owens, whom Republicans in Congress frequently use to whitewash the threat of far-right extremism, downplayed police brutality; and Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who lost his job after being linked to prominent white nationalists, raised the “deep state” specter as he attacked the Mueller report and branded Russian interference in the 2016 election a “hoax.”
“I could go on and on but I conclude this portion by simply saying an obvious and lamentable fact that every single institution in the United States is either actively malicious against the American people or a scam,” Beattie said.
NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration organization associated with white nationalist John Tanton, co-sponsored the event. So did Citizens United, the conservative Super PAC that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate political spending. Another sponsor was a super PAC called Black Americans for a Better Future, which has historically been funded entirely by rich white men, with the vast majority of the money coming from billionaire Robert Mercer.
One America News Network (OAN), a favored propaganda outlet of the Trump administration, covered the symposium and had promoted Kolfage’s GoFundMe as early as Jan. 7, 2019, about a month after it began, giving him an early platform from which to lure in donors. One of OAN’s correspondents, Jack Posobiec ― a neo-Nazi sympathizer and Roger Stone protege who has spread disinformation along with Cernovich ― appears frequently on Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. Posobiec went on a “We Build the Wall Anniversary Special” episode of the podcast this June that featured Kolfage and Kobach, as well as Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, an influential associate of the Trump family.
On Thursday, the OAN website has a tag for “we build the wall,” but it doesn’t link to any actual content. GoFundMe suspended the campaign in October 2019.
A Possible Cover-up?
The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan is known for its independence from “Main Justice” in the nation’s capital, often jokingly referred to as the “Sovereign District of New York.” In the Trump administration, the Southern District of New York caused a number of political problems for the president by charging several of his associates with crimes. SDNY even named Trump as “Individual 1” in its case against former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen, which implicated the president in a scheme to pay to silence a porn star and a former Playboy Playmate ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
In June, Trump wanted to remove SDNY’s top prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. Barr wanted Berman to go quietly, even issuing a highly misleading statement, without Berman’s approval, that claimed Berman would be “stepping down.” Berman refused to resign, and Trump soon fired him.
But Berman’s move paid off. Regular order in the line of succession was maintained, and Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, was named to take over the office instead of an acting U.S. attorney handpicked by Trump or Barr. Berman said that Strauss would “safeguard the Southern District’s enduring tradition of integrity and independence,” expressing faith that the ongoing criminal investigations he’d wanted to see through would move forward without political interference under her leadership.
It’s not entirely clear if Trump was concerned about a criminal case that would accuse his former top strategist of bilking his supporters out of cash for a cause connected to one of the chief issues of his 2016 campaign. But the president’s record of interfering in ongoing criminal investigations on behalf of his associates, as laid out in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, raises questions about whether the Bannon case is linked to the ouster of Berman.
Kolfage, as The Wall Street Journal reported, recently started another fundraising scheme, purportedly to file a class-action lawsuit against a hashtag, #blacklivesmatter. Kolfage proclaimed that the Black Lives Matter movement is “a full blown racist terror group” which had been “fueled by the NBA, NFL, MLB, and the NHL.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, of course, is largely decentralized and began long before professional sports teams lent their support, particularly since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. The GoFundMe page, which has since been taken down, pointed to a website that claimed Black Lives Matter “is a full political scam” that funnels money to Democrats. (In fact, donations to the Black Lives Matter Global Network are routed through the online donation platform ActBlue, which is known to be associated with Democratic causes, but donations to the Black Lives Matter Global Network can’t go to political campaigns because of the tax status of its sponsoring organization.)
It is unclear how, precisely, Kolfage would sue a decentralized political movement or a hashtag. A federal judge previously ruled: “For reasons that should be obvious, a hashtag — which is an expression that categorizes or classifies a person’s thought — is not a ‘juridical person’ and therefore lacks the capacity to be sued.”
In any event, we probably won’t find out. Kolfage was taken into custody Thursday morning, along with his co-defendants.
Bannon pleaded not guilty. He is currently under federal investigation for another business venture with a Chinese tycoon, Guo Wengui, according to The Wall Street Journal. Earlier Thursday, federal agents arrested him while he was on Guo’s yacht off the coast of Connecticut.
Elise Foley contributed reporting.