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Former Trump Adviser Steve Bannon Charged With Fraud

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Steve Bannon is a message guy. He helped hone President Trump's message of law and order and America first during the 2016 election, work that he continued as an adviser to the president after the election. But, today, the message was not guilty. Earlier today, Bannon was arrested and indicted along with three other men. They're accused of defrauding hundreds of thousands of people who donated to an online campaign to raise money to build a wall along the southern border.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: All right, so what exactly have Bannon and the other men been charged with here?

LUCAS: Well, all of the defendants face one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Bannon is the big name here, of course. He led Trump's campaign back in 2016, later served as an adviser in the White House. He's also, of course, the former chairman of Breitbart News, the conservative outlet. He was arrested on a yacht this morning off the Connecticut coast.

But there are three other defendants in this case. One of them is a man by the name of Brian Kolfage. He is an Iraq war veteran, a triple amputee. And he's the guy who founded what became the We Build the Wall campaign, which is at the center of this case. And that campaign raised around $25 million online...

CHANG: Wow.

LUCAS: ...To help build a wall along the southern border.

CHANG: OK, so what are prosecutors saying Bannon and these other men - what have they specifically done, according to the government?

LUCAS: Well, what the indictment says is that We Build the Wall repeatedly promised donors that 100% of the money given to the campaign would go towards building the wall. They said that they wouldn't take a penny in compensation. But prosecutors say that, in the end, that just wasn't true. They say Bannon and the others siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to line their own pockets. They allegedly funneled money through third parties and shell companies. They drew up fake invoices.

According to the indictment, Bannon received around $1 million that was funneled through a nonprofit that he controlled. Some of that money he held onto himself; some of it he forwarded on to Kolfage. Prosecutors say that Kolfage got, in total, around $350,000 in donated money, money that he then used to pay for home renovations, to buy a boat, to buy a golf cart, among other things. And prosecutors say that the defendants knowingly hid all of this from the public. The indictment, in fact, cites a text message from Kolfage to a fellow defendant that read, quote, "as far as the public knows, no one is getting paid."

CHANG: Well, have we heard yet from Bannon, personally?

LUCAS: Bannon appeared in court today via video link. As you noted, he entered a plea of not guilty. They didn't say anything other than that. I will say, though, that the magistrate judge approved at this hearing his release on a $5 million bond.

CHANG: OK. Well, as we said, Bannon was a close adviser to President Trump, although he did leave the administration in late 2017. So what has the White House had to say so far about this case?

LUCAS: Well, the president was asked about Bannon this morning after news of Bannon's arrest broke. Here is a bit of what the president had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I haven't dealt with him at all over years now, literally years. And I guess this was a project he was involved in.

LUCAS: Trump also said that he didn't like the We Build the Wall project. He says he thought that it was being done for what he called showboat reasons. So the president was very much trying to distance himself from both Bannon and the wall campaign. Although I will say, just last month, in an interview with Fox News, Trump did have good things to say about Bannon. Now, the White House spokeswoman also put out a statement today trying to put distance between the president and Bannon, but - you know, saying that Trump hasn't been involved with Bannon since early in the administration. Still, Bannon was unquestionably a Trump insider, and he joins a long list of former Trump advisers to have faced federal charges.

CHANG: Right. That is NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.