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The Stunning Predictability of Steve Bannon’s “We Build the Wall” Scam


Steve Bannon faces charges of alleged fraud and money laundering.Photograph by Lewis Joly / Sipa / Shutterstock

On Sunday, after Steve Bannon appeared on Fox News, an image of his visage during the interview made the rounds on social media. While we in the audience were living through the multifaceted collapse of society, Bannon faced the camera with a mane of gray hair swept back, his face looking like a sunburned hunk of bologna, and a lighthouse rising behind him on some unidentified coast. “He looks INCREDIBLE,” my colleague Naomi Fry commented. Nearly four years have passed since Bannon, the former capo of Breitbart News and the intellectual godfather of contemporary American political extremism, helped bring an egomaniacal bigot to the White House. And now there he was on the screen, his multiple shirt collars unbuttoned and his eyes as unreadable as ever. If the look he was going for was “James Bond villain in retirement,” he was pulling it off.

It has been asked, repeatedly, whether the grifts of Donald Trump and the people around him would ever catch up with them. On Thursday, they caught up to Bannon. Federal prosecutors in New York announced that Bannon and three other men were being indicted for alleged fraud and money laundering for their role in a scheme that, even in a Bond film, might feel too on the nose. For the past two years, Bannon and his accomplices ran an online fund-raising campaign called We Build the Wall, whose nominal purpose was to raise the money for the monument to nativism that Trump had promised to build on the southern border. Trump had also promised that Mexico would pay for the wall. But, when those funds proved unforthcoming, and his various attempts to strong-arm Congress into giving him the money mostly failed, too, Bannon and his gang stepped forward to ask the very people who’d been thrilled by the notion of a “big, beautiful wall” to shell out. According to the government, the group raised more than twenty-five million dollars, and promised “not to take a penny in salary or compensation.” Then they pocketed a bunch of the money. Bannon allegedly routed more than a million dollars through a nonprofit he controls. One of his co-defendants, Brian Kolfage, allegedly used his share of the money to buy, among other things, a boat called Warfighter. According to the Times’ Evan Hill, Kolfage sailed Warfighter in a pro-Trump boat parade held in Destin, Florida, on July 4th. Happy birthday, America. Is there a word in German for something that is at once extraordinary and shocking and yet at the same time totally predictable and stupid?

The indictment raises questions about other Trump allies as well. We Build the Wall’s board members included Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state; Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder and a brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; David A. Clarke, Jr., the former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; and Curt Schilling, the former major-league-baseball pitcher. The indictment came out of the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In June, Trump and his Attorney General, Bill Barr, forced Geoffrey Berman out of his job as the U.S. Attorney in that office, for reasons that remain unclear, and despite Berman’s protests. It now needs to be asked whether this case against a close Trump associate played a role in Berman’s ouster.

The notion that political and legal gravity does not apply to Trump has become a key aspect of the Trump mystique, something that even his opponents begrudgingly believe. “Well, I’d like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam!” goes the classic Twitter joke. “*Trump wriggles his way out of the jam easily* Ah! Well. Nevertheless.” And maybe Trump will, in the end, avoid serious consequences, despite the instances of likely obstruction of justice found by the special counsel Robert Mueller, despite the various investigations into the Trump Organization swirling in New York State, and despite his long history of engaging in business and personal activities that raise all kinds of legal questions. Associates of his have been indicted before, from Michael Flynn to Michael Cohen to Rick Gates, without the damage touching Trump. Being President is great insulation.

But there has been recent evidence that not every jam can be wriggled out of, even by Ol’ Donny. Trump has not been able to browbeat and demagogue the coronavirus. The bottom has fallen out of the American economy, a hundred and seventy thousand Americans are dead, and the polls show that those still alive are souring on the President and his party. This week, even before the Bannon news, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report that detailed the relationship between another former Trump campaign official, Paul Manafort, and Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign. The report called Manafort—who, in recent years, has faced a list of charges for his actions before, during, and after the campaign that is too long to recite here—a “grave counterintelligence threat.” And, according to news reports, the leaders of the same Senate committee last year alerted federal prosecutors that Bannon and Prince, as well as Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and the former Trump campaign official Sam Clovis, may have misled them during testimony—a potential federal crime. (Each has previously denied misleading investigators.) On Thursday, as if to pile on the news, a federal judge once again rejected Trump’s attempts to keep prosecutors in Manhattan from obtaining his tax returns.

Four years ago, the Democratic National Convention took place against the backdrop of an orchestrated political attack: that week, the hacked e-mails of various Democratic Party figures were leaked out to the world. This week, the Democratic Party is again hosting its Convention. The background news this time is a drip, drip of Trumpworld corruption. Trump has spent his recent evenings staying up late to watch his opponents, and to rage-tweet about them. Next week it will be his turn on the live-streamed stage, at the Republican National Convention. Steve Bannon probably won’t be watching from the seashore.



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