Today
Sun 25 July 2021

Grant Stern, the journalist who exposed the scandal behind the non-profit organisation involved in building Trump’s wall, explains the background and why Bannon isn’t off-the-hook

Joe Biden’s presidency has just begun and the Donald Trump era has just come to an end – with its chief enabler the recipient of a last-minute pardon for federal felony charges. But new reporting shows that Steve Bannon is still staring down the barrel of at least one state-level investigation into the non-profit social welfare organisation We Build the Wall. 

The alt-right ideologue Bannon, who was Trump’s campaign manager, illicitly received a million dollars for personal expenses from the group for covertly managing its operation with frontman Brian Kolfage, who shared in the take despite promising to “not take a penny.” 

On 10 December 2020, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs’ formally denied my request for email records on Bannon and 10 other individuals of interest connected with the wall group which it would be otherwise required by law to produce.

“These three requests also generated approximately 2,200 emails,” wrote former Press Secretary Max Flugrath after a records request which began on 20 October 2020. “The vast majority of which were news alerts and newsletters from media outlets, and our department responding to public records requests from other media outlets about We Build the Wall. About 200-300 of the responsive emails contain files, documents, and other case updates linked to an ongoing investigation.”

“As it pertains to the responsive emails containing documents, files, and updates related to the ongoing investigation,” wrote the department’s spokesman, who is required by Florida law to disclose in writing why a request for information is declined, “pursuant to s. 119.071(2)(c)1, Florida Statutes, and s. 570.077, Florida Statutes, and pertinent federal regulations, the department cannot comment on or provide records pertaining to ongoing investigations.”

A source familiar with the department’s investigation spoke this week, on the condition of anonymity. They said now that Bannon has been pardoned, it “would be up to the state of Florida to continue pursuing charges against We Build the Wall”.

“Officials both inside and outside the White House in Trump’s proximity” pushed for Trump to issue an eleventh-hour pardon from money laundering and fraud conspiracy charges, said a source familiar with the Bannon pardon talks who requested anonymity.

“I’m not concerned about any state’s prosecution of the wall organisation or even for Brian Kolfage specifically,” said the source, who also has knowledge of the wall group. “Ultimately, I believe the facts of We Build the Wall speak for themselves and those charges won’t stand up. What that non-profit accomplished was still vastly superior to other organisations formed for those purposes.”

Bannon ally and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is a vice president of the We Build the Wall effort, unsuccessfully sued in federal court to get the group’s remaining $3.5 million released late last year. 

“More money was spent on lawyers early in We Build the Wall than on all of the initial organisers combined. In fact, it was the group’s second-largest expense besides construction,” said this source familiar with Bannon’s pardon. “There is a broad concern that under Kobach’s direction the money will get swallowed into legal fees, instead of to finish the project.”


Ideology and Symbolism

The chain of events that set into motion my reporting, which directly led to Steve Bannon’s indictment and arrest, started in 2018 with his own indiscretions, intensified at the end of that year because of the President’s signature issue: a wall.

The entire affair went to print for the first time and caught fire after a conservative insider shared with me his reasonable suspicions that a private political venture to build a wall on America’s southern border was also a vehicle to enrich insiders. 

During the chaotic summer of 2017, Donald Trump fired his former White House senior advisor Bannon – (or he resigned) – in the wake of the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ riot, a bloody affair that rendered America stunned and counter-protestor Heather Heyer dead. The appearance of anti-Semites and organised militiamen from across the country exposed the deeply unsavoury, true nature of the racist, white supremacist movement that had helped elect a president.

But it was in early January 2018, when Bannon fell out with his elite Republican political circles after publicly criticising the President in the explosive book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, that events were fully set in motion for his downfall and pardon – which affirms his guilt in a scheme to rip-off Trump supporters for a million dollars.

With the backing of American billionaire Robert Mercer, Bannon had founded the scandal-hit and now defunct data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which used stolen Facebook data to influence both the 2016 US Presidential Election and the 2016 EU Referendum. Mercer and his daughter Rebekah unceremoniously dumped Bannon from his cushy gig at their alt-right outlet, Breitbart, because of his indiscretions. 

But the far-right political svengali’s fall from grace in America led him on an international quest to spread his nationalist ideology during 2018. 

Bannon’s refrain in America always cited “globalists” which most political commentators view as thinly veiled anti-Semitism, while he spent the year traveling the world in support of his right-wing political organisation of national parties. 

For example, he informally advised Brazil’s far-right Jair Bolsonaro during his successful presidential election bid. He also visited Japan, Italy, Belgium, Hungary, Greece, Switzerland, Israel, Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany.

In the UK, Byline Times reported that he was advising Nigel Farage’s organisation World for Brexit. Bannon himself also claimed to have advised the now Prime Minister Boris Johnson while he was Foreign Secretary.

“Bannon had been overseas in Brazil and Europe and We Build the Wall was the perfect project to bring him back so he could emphasise his America First roots,” said the source familiar with the Trump administration’s pardon decision, about the reasons behind Bannon teaming up with the wall group.

In 2018-19, Trump unexpectedly shut down the federal Government for 35 days by using the executive veto to cancel a year-end spending bill negotiated and passed by both houses of Congress because it didn’t contain tax money for his vanity project – a southern border wall.

In Florida, a little-known Trump supporter named Brian Kolfage reacted to the 2018 government shutdown by starting a GoFundMe page for the ostensible purpose of privately and directly funding the wall, which shockingly garnered $20 million in donations. In turn, Kolfage’s newsmaking effort attracted the attention and help of Steve Bannon who helped him to found We Build the Wall, the organisation which they managed in a way that led to both of their indictments only twenty months later. Kolfage did not receive a pardon from Trump, nor did his other two indicted co-conspirators, including Bannon’s right-hand man Andrew Badolato.

Ironically, Trump campaigned for years on the notion that Mexico would pay for his wall idea, which ultimately it never did. Although the Trump administration ultimately built structures on the border, the wall idea’s ultimate utility was always as a political symbol of opposition to persons of colour in America, since it failed to stop modern security threats such as Russian hacking or a pandemic bug.

He may have now left the centre-stage, but it was Steve Bannon who fused cutting-edge technology with disinformation using the help of a military-grade, psychological warfare outfit he built to upend politics on both sides of the Atlantic in rapid succession. 


OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU

Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

Thank you for reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION

A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story…

Our leading investigations include Brexit, Empire & the culture war, Russian interference, Coronavirus, cronyism and far right radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Reportage