A smiling Bannon left federal court in Manhattan with a smile, claiming his indictment was a “fiasco.” Bannon said that “This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall.”
Bannon has pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges in an alleged scheme to steal cash donated to a “We Build the Wall” online fundraiser.
The charges were brought by Southern District of New York prosecutors who work for the federal Department of Justice.
EARLIER: Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to Donald Trump, has been indicted by federal prosecutors in an alleged scheme along with others to funnel money from a We Build the Wall crowdfunding campaign for their own personal benefit.
Bannon was named along with three other defendants, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea. (Read the indictment here) They were arrested on Thursday morning on charges that include conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
According to federal prosecutors in New York, Bannon and the others raised more than $25 million for a campaign to build a wall along the southern border, and promised that the 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,” according to Audrey Strauss, the acting United States Attorney in the southern district of New York.
Bannon plead not guilty in an appearance in federal court in New York, and smiled and waved as he exited the courthouse. He was released on bail, with travel restricted to New York and Washington.
“This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” he said.
Bannon was Trump’s chief strategist for the first six months of his presidency and was viewed as the architect of the president’s nationalist agenda, but departed shortly after the arrival of a new chief of staff, John F. Kelly. Bannon fell out of favor with Trump in January, 2018, after publication of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. Bannon was quoted making derisive comments about Donald Trump Jr.
At the White House on Thursday, Trump distanced himself from Bannon, even though the We Build the Wall campaign was intended to bolster one of the president’s signature initiatives. “I feel very badly. I haven’t been dealing with him for a long period of time,” Trump said, adding that he “didn’t know any other the other people even.”
He said that he thought the We Build the Wall project was being done for “showboating” reasons, and the White House later issued a statement saying that the president “has always felt the wall must be a government project and that it is far too big and complex to be handled privately.”
Prosecutors allege that the scheme included using sham invoices and accounts to launder the donations.
The indictment claims that Kolfage took more than $350,000 in funds from the campaign, while Bannon, through a non-profit he controls, received more than $1 million. Some of that money was used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses, according to prosecutors. According to The New York Times, Bannon was arrested on a $35 million yacht off the coast of Connecticut. The vessel belonged to Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman with whom Bannon has collaborated in business ventures.
The two charges — conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering — each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Bannon was an investment banker and entertainment industry financier during the 1990s who, during the next two decades, transformed his career into a conservative documentary producer and the chieftain of Breitbart News, which became the voice of the alt-right movement. In August 2016, Trump tapped him to serve as CEO of his faltering presidential campaign, and Bannon was credited with turning around the operation along with new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.
After Trump’s unexpected victory, when Bannon was named chief strategist in the White House, quickly becoming a source of media intrigue as the behind-the-scenes orchestrator of a chaotic start to the president’s tenure. He even appeared on the cover of Time with the headline, “The Great Manipulator.”
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