Steve Bannon, architect of Trump's 2016 win, charged with defrauding border-wall donors

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Steve Bannon, an architect of President Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, has been charged with defrauding Trump supporters in a campaign to help build his signature wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, prosecutors said on Thursday.

As a top adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign who later served as White House chief strategist, Bannon helped articulate the right-wing populism and fierce opposition to immigration that have helped define Trump’s 3-1/2 years in office. Bannon left the White House in August 2017.

Bannon was among several people charged with wire fraud in an indictment by federal prosecutors in Manhattan for allegedly defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors through a $25 million crowdfunding campaign called “We Build the Wall,” the Justice Department said.

Prosecutors said Bannon received more than $1 million of that money through an unnamed nonprofit organization.

The White House declined immediate comment. A lawyer for Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s signature effort to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border – a key 2016 campaign promise – has struggled amid court challenges, logistical hurdles and opposition from Democrats in Congress.

In the meantime, more than 330,000 supporters have donated to private fund-raisers and profiteers who have promised to build the wall on their own, according to a 2019 Reuters investigatihere Those efforts likewise have met with limited success.

The indictment comes as Trump trails in opinion polls behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Also charged were Brian Kolfage, 38, Andrew Badolato, 56, and Timothy Shea, 49, who prosecutors said were involved in the effort.

Kolfage took $350,000 for his personal use, according to the indictment. A triple-amputee U.S. Air Force veteran, Kolfage formerly ran a company that made millions of dollars running right-wing media websites. He first pledged to send donations to the U.S. government when he launched the effort in December 2018, but then said he would use the money to hire private contractors and build the wall on their own.

Kolfage could not immediately be reached for comment.

The defendants were each charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. They face up to 40 years in prison.

The donors thought the money would go toward helping to build a border wall, prosecutors said. But Kolfage, whom they described as the public face and founder of the operation, received thousands of dollars that he used to fund a lavish lifestyle.

Kolfage is due to appear in federal court later on Thursday in Florida, while Bannon is set to appear in federal court in Manhattan. The other two defendants are due to appear in courts in the Middle District of Florida and Colorado.

The charges are being handled by the same federal office that prosecuted Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and is investigating his current lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. The office’s top prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, was abruptly ousted by Attorney General William Barr earlier this year.

The charges were announced on the same day that Trump faced another legal setback, with a judge dismissing his lawsuit trying to shield his personal and corporate tax records from release.

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