Former White House adviser Steve Bannon has been arrested on charges that he and three others ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme called We Build The Wall.
The charges were contained in an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court that alleged Bannon received more than one million dollars (£760,000) himself, using some to secretly pay a co-defendant, Brian Kolfage, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars of Bannon’s personal expenses.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Bannon and three others “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors” in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign that raised more than 25 million dollars (£19 million) to build a wall along the southern border of the United States.
A spokeswoman for Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the indictment, Bannon promised that 100% of the donated money would be used for the project, but the defendants collectively used hundreds of thousands of dollars in a manner inconsistent with the organisation’s public representations.
The indictment said they faked invoices and sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to hide what was really happening.
Bannon is among a stunning list of former Trump associates who have found themselves under indictment or in jail, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
An immigration plan unveiled by Mr Trump last year had included a proposal to allow public donations to pay for his long-promised southern border wall. At that point, the GoFundMe campaign launched by war veteran Brian Kolfage had raised more than 20 million dollars for wall construction.
But Mr Trump later denounced the project publicly, tweeting last month: “I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles.”
Mr Trump on Thursday told reporters that he knew nothing about the project, and never believed in a privately financed barrier.
“I thought that was a project being done for showboating reasons,” he said.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany also weighed in.
“As everyone knows, President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat, and perhaps raise funds,” she said, adding that Mr Trump “has not been involved with Steve Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the administration, and he does not know the people involved with this project”.
The defendants learned last October from a financial institution that the We Build The Wall campaign might be under federal criminal investigation and took additional steps to conceal the fraud, according to the indictment.
Charges included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
“It’s not possible to steal the money,” Kolfage once said publicly, according to the indictment. “I can’t touch that money. It’s not for me.”
We Build The Wall originally promoted a project for three miles of fence posts in south Texas that was ultimately built and largely funded by Fisher Industries, which has received about two billion dollars (£1.5 billion) in funding for wall contracts.
Mr Trump recently criticised that section of wall after it showed signs of erosion, saying it was “only done to make me look bad”, even though it was built by his supporters.
Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being chosen to serve as chief executive of Mr Trump’s campaign in its critical final months, when he pushed a scorched earth strategy that included highlighting the stories of former president Bill Clinton’s accusers.
After the election, he served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of Mr Trump’s administration.
The blunt-spoken, combative Bannon was the voice of a nationalistic, outsider conservatism, and he pushed Mr Trump to follow through on some of his most contentious campaign promises, including his travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries.
But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers, and his high profile sometimes irked Mr Trump.
He was pushed out in August 2017.
Bannon, who served in the navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before becoming a Hollywood producer, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called War Room that began during the president’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.