The Justice Department indictment of former White House adviser Stephen Bannon and three associates underscores the cynical ways cronies of President Donald Trump are manipulating his supporters to advance personal profit-seeking goals. Bannon and his We Build the Wall nonprofit associates established an online donation effort whose stated goal was to fund private construction of a border wall, echoing Trump's 2016 presidential campaign message. In reality, the indictment says, the defendants diverted more than $1 million in donations to pay personal expenses and boost their own bank accounts using fake invoices and shell companies.
Trump supporters owe it to themselves to visit the nonprofit's website, webuildthewall.us, before it is dismantled. It starkly displays the ways Trump's cronies attracted $25 million in donations using his campaign themes, along with endorsements from major personalities — including Donald Trump Jr., former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, private military contractor Erik Prince and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Despite its income and big-name advocacy, the organization's offices are in a nondescript, low-rent strip mall in Panama City, Florida.
Its website is filled with images of machinery installing a one-mile segment of a private wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico, along with overblown claims that the segment "has stopped 100% of illegal crossings." Scrawled on the concrete at its base are the words, "MAGA, The people's wall, Donald J. Trump."
Trump's administration awarded a $1.7 billion contract to the builder of that section. But in late July, possibly upon receiving word of the Justice Department investigation, Trump began distancing himself from We Build the Wall. On Thursday, he attempted to rewrite history, stating, "I don't think it should be a privately financed wall. ... I didn't like it. I didn't want to be associated with it."
But Trump's son, Donald Jr., states on the website: "This is private enterprise at its finest. Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else and what you guys are doing is pretty amazing. It started from a grassroots effort and it's doing some wonderful things for an important issue."
Bannon and his associates allegedly were pocketing donations despite the pledge from the nonprofit's founder, Brian Kolfage, that no private individual would profit from donations. Instead, the defendants "secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle," said Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In 2018, Kolfage told NBC News: "We have someone who is tied in with the White House that's in their inner-circle. We can work on a way where we can guarantee with a contract where [the funding] can only go to the wall."
The indictment should cause Trump supporters everywhere to question all the jingoistic slogans behind his presidential campaign. They mask a network of fraudsters intent on manipulating Trump's naive supporters for personal profit.
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