President Donald Trump pardoned his longtime adviser Steve Bannon late Tuesday night, freeing Bannon from a possible conviction in federal court for his role in a coordinated fleecing of the president’s most loyal supporters. Bannon faced multiple fraud counts in the Southern District of New York following an August indictment for allegedly stealing funds from a charity he controlled, which purported to raise money to help build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
The news was first reported by The New York Times.
Like no president in American history, Trump has issued a wave of pardons for friends and key supporters, even when in many cases their guilt was not in doubt and when the White House can claim no broader miscarriage of justice. The law, in Trump’s presidency, simply does not apply to his allies.
Unlike other pardons, Bannon’s case has not yet even gone to trial, and so the pardon can only be seen as an implicit acknowledgment that Bannon would probably have been found guilty.
According to the indictment, the fund, called “We Build the Wall,” was actually a slush fund for the personal expenses of Bannon and his co-defendants, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea. Trump did not pardon those three co-defendants, however, so the possibility remains for a high-wattage trial in which the public would see how one of the architects of his presidential run systematically preyed upon Trump supporters and used the profits to help fund a lavish lifestyle.
The We Build the Wall scheme began in late 2018, when Congress was deadlocked on the issue of funding construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. Kolfage launched a GoFundMe page purporting to assist the construction of the wall, and it raised $20 million in the first week. But GoFundMe wouldn’t release the money until Kolfage identified a legitimate nonprofit that would receive the money.
That’s where Bannon stepped in, according to prosecutors. He provided a 501(c)(4) organization that he controlled. He also offered the star power of a conservative heavyweight who was fresh off a seven-month stint in Trump’s White House and a key role in the president’s 2016 campaign.
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. Badolato and Bannon also used hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for the wall for their personal expenses, the indictment contends. The men used the money to purchase speedboats, cars, cosmetic surgery and travel.
As We Build the Wall continued to raise money, several members of Trump’s administration — and his own family — brushed up against the scheme or even endorsed it.
Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, 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 at the time. “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.”
Trump ally Kris Kobach, an immigration hard-liner and former Kansas secretary of state who led Trump’s failed investigation of alleged voter fraud, 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 in the summer of 2020, Yahoo News has 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.”
Shea’s wife, Amanda, tweeted in 2019 that she had even discussed the project with Trump himself, in detail, as HuffPost reported this summer.
After the indictments, some donors were stunned and upset. “I feel taken,” Barbara Copeland, a 56-year-old Trump supporter in South Carolina, told HuffPost in August. She said she donated $100 to We Build the Wall in 2019. “I too fell for [Kolfage’s claims that he was] never going to use a dime of it for personal use.”
In recent months, Bannon’s trial was delayed after his lawyers resigned from the case. They did not cite a reason, but the move came on the heels of incendiary comments Bannon made on his podcast, in which he urged Trump to behead FBI Director Christopher Way and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
CNN reported in late December that Bannon and Trump were speaking again, as Bannon advised Trump on how to challenge the results of the 2020 election.
Republican superlawyer Cleta Mitchell, who recently left her powerful Washington law firm job after it came out she was aiding Trump’s effort to overturn election results in Georgia and elsewhere, was also legal counsel for the nonprofit group Bannon was allegedly using to funnel proceeds from We Build The Wall.