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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7:25 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Steve Bannon was charged with fraud today. Here's what we know.

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon exits the Manhattan Federal Court on August 20 in the Manhattan borough of New York City.
Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon exits the Manhattan Federal Court on August 20 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former campaign adviser, faced federal prosecutors today after he was arrested on a boat.

Here's what you need to know about Bannon's legal troubles:

  • The charges: Bannon and three others were charged with defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of a fundraising campaign purportedly aimed at supporting Trump's border wall — making him the latest of Trump’s associates to find himself on the wrong side of the law.
  • His court appearance: Bannon’s lawyer entered a plea of not guilty to the charges contained in the unsealed indictment today. Appearing by video conference, Bannon wore a white mask and a button down shirt. He was sunburned and rocked back and forth in his chair. Bannon’s image was projected on the screen in one box with a law enforcement official in the corner of the screen.
  • Where Bannon was found: He had been on a mega-yacht in Long Island Sound near Connecticut for the last several weeks, people familiar with the situation said. Bannon would tell people he was "at sea." The Coast Guard transported agents from the Department of Justice to the yacht and performed a safety sweep of the vessel just before the arrest, Chief Warrant Officer Mariana O'Leary told CNN.  
  • What it took to arrest him: O'Leary said the mission involved a 45-foot response boat from its station in New London, Connecticut, and a multi-mission helicopter from its base at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The MH-60J helicopter helped officials determine where the yacht was located, O'Leary said. She described the boat as a medium-sized vessel often used for search and rescue and law enforcement duties.  
  • Bannon's relationship with Trump: Bannon was once a big voice inside the White House as Trump's chief strategist, until he was ousted by the President in August 2017. He had helped run Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and was credited as a driving force behind Trump's populist appeal, nationalist ideology and controversial policies. Trump fired him in 2017, and the two had a falling-out in 2018 after Bannon was quoted calling an infamous 2016 meeting of a Russian lawyer and Trump campaign officials "treasonous."

7:03 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Bannon: "This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall"

From CNN's Kara Scannell

Steve Bannon leaves court in New York on Thursday, Aug. 20.
Steve Bannon leaves court in New York on Thursday, Aug. 20. CNN

Steve Bannon exited the Federal courthouse in Manhattan moments ago and removed his face mask as soon as he got through the doors’ threshold.

He waved at supporters before talking to reporters.

"This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” Bannon told reporters before departing in a vehicle.

Bannon pleaded not guilty earlier today after federal prosecutors charged him and three others with defrauding donors in a border wall fundraising campaign.

Watch:

6:43 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

The US Coast Guard transported law enforcement to Bannon arrest

From CNN's Pete Muntean

The United States Coast Guard said it assisted in the arrest of Steve Bannon, who was on a mega-yacht in Long Island Sound near Connecticut. 

The Coast Guard transported agents from the Department of Justice to the yacht and performed a safety sweep of the vessel just before the arrest, Chief Warrant Officer Mariana O'Leary told CNN.  

She said the mission involved a 45-foot response boat from its station in New London, Connecticut, and a multi-mission helicopter from its base at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.   

The MH-60J helicopter helped officials determine where the yacht was located, O'Leary said. She described the boat as a medium-sized vessel often used for search and rescue and law enforcement duties.  

She said the Coast Guard frequently operates in the Long Island Sound.  

Publicly available aircraft tracking data shows the helicopter flew a circular orbit around the yacht for about an hour early Thursday morning. Coast Guard fact sheets say this type of helicopter carries electro-optical and infrared sensors for surveillance. 

Some background: Bannon was charged with defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of a fundraising campaign purportedly aimed at supporting President Trump's border wall — making him the latest of Trump’s associates to find himself on the wrong side of the law.

Bannon had been on the boat for the last several weeks, people familiar with the situation said. He would tell people he was "at sea."

5:48 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Judge sets bail for Bannon that includes $5 million bond and he will be released today with conditions

From CNN's Erica Orden and Kara Scannell

Courtesy Christine Cornell
Courtesy Christine Cornell

Judge Stewart D. Aaron set bail for Steve Bannon that includes a $5 million bond to be secured by $1.75 million in cash or real property and two financially responsible persons as co-signers.

Bannon will also receive pretrial supervision and have his travel restricted to the southern and eastern districts of New York, the district of Connecticut and the district of Washington, DC.

Bannon will also be restricted from using private airplanes, yachts or boats without permission from the court.

Bannon will be released Thursday on these conditions, with the terms of the bond due by Sept. 3.

4:24 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Steve Bannon pleads not guilty

From CNN's Erica Orden and Kara Scannell

Steve Bannon’s lawyer has entered a plea of not guilty to the charges contained in the indictment unsealed against Trump’s former campaign adviser on Thursday.

Prosecutor Nicolas Roos said Bannon was arrested this morning around 7:15 a.m. ET on a "yacht" off the coast of Connecticut. He was transported to New York, where he arrived several hours later.

From the courthouse: Appearing by video conference, Bannon was wearing a white mask and a button down shirt. He was sunburned and rocked back and forth in his chair.

Bannon’s image was projected on the screen in one box with a law enforcement official in the corner of the screen. In another box the judge presided from a court room. Lawyers were not visible — they dialed in for the proceeding.

3:54 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

SOON: Bannon will have his initial court appearance

From CNN's Kara Scannell

A court hearing in the case against Steve Bannon is expected at 4 p.m. ET today.

Bannon is not expected to be physically present in court for the initial appearance. Instead, he's expected to appear virtually.

Earlier today, federal prosecutors charged Bannon and three others with defrauding donors in a border wall fundraising campaign. All four of the defendants are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

3:08 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Bannon arrested on exiled Chinese dissident's yacht, law enforcement officials say

From CNN's Kara Scannell

Steve Bannon was arrested at 7:30 a.m. Thursday near Westbrook, Connecticut, on the yacht of exiled Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, according to two law enforcement officials.

Earlier Thursday, CNN reported that a law enforcement official said Bannon was arrested on a boat Thursday morning off the Eastern coast of Connecticut.

2:27 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

2 members of Bannon's border wall funding group raided by federal agents this morning

From CNN's Zachary Cohen

An associate of the border wall crowdfunding group "We Build the Wall" told CNN Thursday federal agents "raided" his recreational vehicle in Mesquite, Nevada, hours before prosecutors unsealed charges accusing others involved in the group, including Steve Bannon, of defrauding donors. 

Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence — who are listed on the group’s website as part of the We Build the Wall team — were both served with warrants for their cellphones and subpoenas to appear before a grand jury, Stockton told CNN.

He and Lawrence have not been charged.

“In the predawn, heavily armed federal agents served Jennifer Lawrence and I with warrants for our cell phones and subpoenas to appear before a grand jury. We were in our RV in Mesquite Nevada. They took both of our cell phones and nothing else,” he said in a Twitter message.

Stockton said federal agents told him the warrants and subpoenas came from the Southern District of New York.

The raid occurred on the same day four of their former associates at We Build the Wall, including Bannon, were arrested and indicted by New York prosecutors for allegedly using hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to the online crowdfunding campaign for personal expenses, among other things.

Bannon and another defendant, Brian Kolfage, promised donors that the campaign — which ultimately raised more than $25 million — was "a volunteer organization" and that "100% of the funds raised...will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose," according to the indictment unsealed Thursday. 

But instead, according to prosecutors, Bannon, through a non-profit under his control, used more than $1 million from We Build the Wall to "secretly" pay Kolfage and cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon's personal expenses.

Stockton told CNN that he a Lawrence are “still deciding on {legal} counsel." He said they “remain extremely proud that we were able to deliver a segment of wall for all the people who donated to WBTW with the project in Sunland Park.”

“We are skeptical of the timing of the allegations but cannot comment on any specifics at this time,” he added. 

1:46 p.m. ET, August 20, 2020

Here's what one of the defendants bought with the donations, according to prosecutors

From CNN's Erica Orden and Kara Scannell

Steve Bannon and three other defendants are accused of defrauding donors in a border wall fundraising campaign, allegedly using hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to an online crowdfunding campaign called We Build the Wall for personal expenses, among other things.

Bannon and another defendant, Brian Kolfage, promised donors that the campaign, which ultimately raised more than $25 million, was "a volunteer organization" and that "100% of the funds raised...will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose," according to the indictment unsealed Thursday.

But instead, according to prosecutors, Bannon, through a non-profit under his control, used more than $1 million from We Build the Wall to "secretly" pay Kolfage and cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon's personal expenses.

Kolfage, according to the charges, spent more than $350,000 of the donations on personal expenses, including...

  • Cosmetic surgery
  • A luxury SUV
  • A golf cart
  • Payments toward a boat
  • Home renovations
  • Jewelry
  • Personal tax payments
  • Credit card debt.