Steve Bannon charged with fraud in border wall campaign

By Meg Wagner and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 7:30 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020
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11:26 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Bannon was arrested on a boat off the Connecticut coast, law enforcement official tells CNN

Steve Bannon was arrested on a boat Thursday morning off the Eastern coast of Connecticut, according to a law enforcement official.

The former Trump campaign adviser was indicted, along with three others, in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a border wall fundraising campaign.

11:58 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Justice Department was briefed before Bannon indictment, officials say

From CNN's Evan Perez

The Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A law enforcement official says personnel at Justice Department headquarters were briefed before the indictment of Steven Bannon and others. The official, however, didn’t say when the briefing occurred.

Justice officials have said Attorney General William Barr’s June ouster of Geoffrey Berman as Manhattan US Attorney was not related to the handling of any particular case. 

11:09 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Here are the other Trump associates who have been indicted or found guilty

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon attends a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon attends a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The orbit of former advisers and associates of President Trump who have been indicted or found guilty grew Thursday when Steve Bannon, his former senior adviser and chief strategist, was arrested and indicted.

The crimes they have been accused of are different, and stem from a constellation of alleged criminal conspiracies.

Here's a list:

Steve Bannon: 

  • Trump’s political guru and onetime chief strategist, Bannon was charged Thursday with defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a border wall fundraising campaign. Once among Trump's most trusted advisers — with walk-in privileges to the Oval Office — Bannon left the White House in 2017 on bad terms and, for a period, was on the outs with Trump. 
  • In an interview with the New York Times earlier this year, Trump said he hadn’t spoken with his former campaign manager “in a year and a half.” He did, however, offer praise for Bannon as a top advocate during his impeachment who caught his attention.
  • Trump has praised him more recently, including in an interview on Fox News this summer: “Steve Bannon's been much better not being involved. He says the greatest president ever. I mean, he's saying things that I said, "Let's keep Steve out there, he's doing a good job." But they're all being — they're all involved.”

Michael Cohen: 

  • Cohen, Trump’s onetime lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty in 2018 to tax fraud, lying to Congress and campaign finance violations for facilitating hush money payments to two women who alleged past affairs with the President. Trump has denied having affairs with the women.
  • Last week, Cohen released the foreword of his upcoming book, teasing what he claims is a behind-the-scenes exposé of his acts as Trump's fixer — from stiffing contractors on a business deal to lying about extra-marital affairs to the President's attempts to "insinuate himself into the world of President Vladimir Putin."

Paul Manafort: 

  • Trump’s onetime campaign chairman had been in jail since June 2018 before being released to home confinement amid the coronavirus pandemic. He is serving a 7.5-year sentence after being convicted by a jury of tax and banking crimes in August 2018, then pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
  • As part of a plea deal cut in September 2018, Manafort admitted to money laundering, tax fraud and illegal foreign lobbying connected to his years of lucrative work for Ukrainian politicians, as well as defrauding banks to supplement his income with cash through mortgages. He also agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors from then-special counsel Robert Mueller's office — before lying during those interview sessions.

Rick Gates: 

  • A onetime deputy campaign chairman for Trump, Gates was sentenced to 45 days in jail and three years probation in 2019 after admitting to helping Manafort conceal $75 million in foreign bank accounts from their years of Ukraine lobbying work. Gates shared searing details about Trump's efforts in 2016 with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Roger Stone: 

  • Stone, Trump’s friend and political adviser, was convicted of crimes that included lying to Congress in part, prosecutors said, to protect the President. Trump commuted his sentence this summer days before Stone was set to report to a federal prison in Georgia.
  • Stone was convicted last year of seven charges — including lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a congressional committee proceeding — as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Among the things he misled Congress about were his communications with Trump campaign officials — communications that prosecutors said Stone hid out of his desire to protect Trump.

Michael Flynn: 

  • Trump’s onetime national security adviser, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his talks with the then-Russian ambassador about approaches that would undermine Obama administration policy before Trump took office.
  • The case has become a political lightning rod, with Trump and Flynn both saying he's been treated unfairly by the judge and the prosecutors who cut his plea deal. Trump has not ruled out a pardon for Flynn.

There are also some people further out in Trump's orbit who have been indicted or found guilty:

  • George Papadopoulos: A onetime campaign aide, Papadoloulos served 12 days in prison for lying to investigators about his contact with individuals tied to Russia during the 2016 campaign.
  • George Nader: An informal campaign foreign policy adviser, Nader was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a federal judge in Virginia stemming from his convictions on child sex charges.
  • Chris Collins: The first member of Congress to endorse Trump, Collins was sentenced to 26 months in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges in an insider trading case.
10:50 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

If convicted, Steve Bannon could be in jail "for many, many years," CNN analysts says

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Former US President advisor Steve Bannon delivers a speech during the Front National party annual congress on March 10, 2018 in Lille, France. 
Former US President advisor Steve Bannon delivers a speech during the Front National party annual congress on March 10, 2018 in Lille, France.  Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

“In a lot of ways this is fraud 101 blown up because [of] the massive amounts we're talking about here,” CNN legal analyst Elie Honig said about federal prosecutors charging Steve Bannon and three others with defrauding donors in a border wall fundraising campaign.

How strong is the evidence? “This should be very provable,” Honig told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. 

“You can pick up clues from the indictment. And in the indictment, the SDNY talks about how they have fake invoices and sham vendor arrangements. That tells me the SDNY has those documents," he added, referencing the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“Fake invoices — that's about as lay-down-your-hand proof as you can have. So it looks to me like this is a paper case, this is provable on the documents,” he added.
“Steve Bannon’s in a lot of trouble given the fraud amount here — $25 million. He could be going to jail for many, many years if he is convicted.” 
10:45 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

White House declines to comment on Bannon's indictment

From CNN's Betsy Klein

White House director of strategic communications Alyssa Farah did not comment on the arrest and indictment of former Trump campaign adviser Steve Bannon.

She told the pool: “I refer you to DOJ, this is not a White House matter."

10:34 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Here's what will happen next

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Following his arrest this morning, Steve Bannon will be presented in court later today, CNN’s Kara Scannell reports.

The hearings will be done virtually.

The case will be processed by the FBI. Bannon's fingerprints will be taken. Then he will be presented in court in New York. The initial hearing will deal with the terms of his release.

“We don't know yet if there's any agreement about bail,” Scannell reports. “Because it's not a violent crime, the US Attorney's office generally doesn't seek to detain someone, especially during the Covid crisis.”

The initial hearing is usually brief and there will be an arraignment where Bannon will enter a plea in the near future.

10:32 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

We Build the Wall founder allegedly used money to fund his lavish lifestyle, SDNY says

Retired U.S. Air Force Sr. Airman Brian Kolfage speaks with the media during a groundbreaking ceremony in Sandestin, Florida, on January 14, 2016.
Retired U.S. Air Force Sr. Airman Brian Kolfage speaks with the media during a groundbreaking ceremony in Sandestin, Florida, on January 14, 2016. Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News/AP

Former Trump campaign adviser Steve Bannon and We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage — along with two others — have been charged with fraud by federal prosecutors in New York.

A triple amputee Air Force veteran and motivational speaker, Kolfage was the leader of the online, crowd-funded campaign to build a border wall. Here's what acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss said: 

“As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their 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. 
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. 
We thank the USPIS for their partnership in investigating this case, and we remain dedicated to rooting out and prosecuting fraud wherever we find it.”
10:58 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

What the charges against Steve Bannon mean, according to CNN's legal analyst

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon arrives to testify at the trial of Roger Stone at a federal court in Washington, DC, on November 8, 2019.
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon arrives to testify at the trial of Roger Stone at a federal court in Washington, DC, on November 8, 2019. Al Drago/AP

Federal prosecutors have charged Steve Bannon and three others with defrauding donors in a border wall fundraising campaign. Bannon, Trump’s former campaign adviser, has been arrested. Elie Honig, CNN’s legal analyst, said this is “essentially, a massive embezzlement that’s being alleged here and a fraud.”

The alleged fraud is in the way that the defendants, including Steve Bannon, marketed this “build the wall” operation, Honig explained.

“They essentially marketed it as an operation where, if you donated, this money is going to be used to build the border wall,” he said. “But instead — this is the embezzlement part — Bannon and the other defendants essentially pocketed that money. They used it to fund their own lavish lifestyle.”

“In a way, it's really a straight-forward fraud and embezzlement case and the evidence looks quite strong to me,” he added. 

Given the potential political nature of the case, the charges would have to be at least notified to typically to the deputy attorney general, according to Honig, who added that the deputy would have certainly notified Attorney General Bill Barr.

“I think the most reasonable way to look at this is that this was approved,” he said. “The SDNY is famously independent from politics.”

However, it is still under the supervision of the attorney general and in a case like this with potential political implications, it has to go to the main justice and the attorney general, he explained.

Watch:

10:18 a.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Read the full indictment in the Bannon border wall fraud case

From CNN's Karl de Vries

Steve Bannon, a former top ally of President Trump, has been arrested along with three others in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a border wall fundraising campaign.

Read the full indictment here.