- Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges on Thursday, hours after he and three others were arrested for defrauding hundreds of thousands of people who donated to the We Build the Wall fundraising campaign.
- The campaign, which was started by a Brian Kolfage in 2018, raised $25 million from half a million donors, which the organization leaders said they would use to privately build segments of Trump’s long-touted border wall.
- However, the indictment accuses the men of taking donations for themselves and routing funds through a nonprofit and a shell company.
- Bannon is accused of taking over $1 million, and Kolfage is accused of taking over $350,000.
- All four face one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
We Build the Wall Campaign
In a virtual court appearance Thursday, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty after he and three others were arrested for defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors who gave money to the We Build the Wall fundraising campaign.
The campaign was first started as a viral crowdfunding campaign by purple heart veteran and triple amputee Brian Kolfage in December 2018. The GoFundMe had the goal of raising $1 billion to build part of the border wall for Trump.
At the time, Kolfage told reporters that he started the fundraiser because “political games from both parties” were holding back funding for the wall, and said that his campaign was about “giving the people the power.”
On the GoFundMe page, which has since been removed, Kolfage promised that, no matter what, “100% of your donations will go to the Trump Wall. If for ANY reason we don’t reach our goal we will refund your donation.”
Just a month later, in January 2019, Kolfage decided that it would be more effective to raise money through a nonprofit instead. Rather than giving the Trump administration the money, the nonprofit would use it to privately build segments of the wall through negotiations with people who owned land along the southern border.
As for the over $20 million he had already raised from nearly 340,000 donors, Kolfage said that they could either get their money back or redirect it to the nonprofit. A GoFundMe spokesperson said at the time that because of the promises Kolfage had made, all donors would automatically get refunds unless they manually redirect their donations.
Around that time, Kolfage created the nonprofit to continue raising money, and according to their website, We Build the Wall has received $25 million from half a million donors.
Notably, Kolfage also got several significant Republican figures to sign as advisory board members, including Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. Bannon served as chairman of the board.
The charges unveiled Thursday allege that Bannon, Kolfage, and two other men named Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, stole donations to the campaign for personal use by routing contributions through the nonprofit and shell companies.
According to a statement from the Justice Department, the unsealed indictment claims the four men, “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction.”
To encourage people to donate, the indictment alleges that Kolfage “repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would ‘not take a penny in salary or compensation’ and that ‘100% of the funds raised . . . will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose’ because, as BANNON publicly stated, ‘we’re a volunteer organization.’”
The prosectuors lists the numerous claims Kolfage made about not collecting money from the organization, including sending mass emails to donors asking them to buy from a coffee company he owned and telling them it was the only way he “keeps his family fed and a roof over their head” because he was taking “no compensation” from the nonprofit.
According to the indictment, Kolfage also repeatedly touted the bylaws the nonprofit put in place, publicly claiming they said he was to receive no salary and even once going as far as to say, “It’s not possible to steal the money.” Both he and Bannon have additionally said that the advisory board members would not be compensated.
Prosecutors say all those claims were false, and that in reality, all four men were taking a cut, with them allegedly using the money “for a variety of personal expenses, including, among other things, travel, hotel, consumer goods and personal credit card debts.”
According to the indictment, despite his many public statements, within just days of launching We Build a Wall, Kolfage reached a secret agreement with the other defendants under which he would be paid $100,000 upfront and then 20,000 per each month following.
In total, the indictment claims Kolfage took over $350,000 of the donations which he spent on boat payments, a luxury S.U.V., a golf cart, and cosmetic surgery, among other things. Bannon, for his part, allegedly took more than $1 million, which he allegedly used to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.
To conceal the payments, the prosecutors say the defendants “devised a scheme” to route them through a separate nonprofit owned by Bannon and a shell company by “using fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements, among other ways.”
When they learned last October that they may be under criminal investigation, the website for We Build a Wall was changed “to remove any mention of the promise Kolfage was not being compensated and to add a statement that he would be paid a salary starting January 2020,” the indictment says.
All four men have each been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Axios)
Mississippi Asks Supreme Court To Overturn Roe v. Wade
The Supreme Court’s decision to consider Mississippi’s restrictive abortion ban already has sweeping implications for the precedents set under the landmark reproductive rights ruling, but now the state is asking the high court to go even further.
Mississippi’s Abortion Case
Mississippi filed a brief Thursday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade when it hears the state’s 15-week abortion ban this fall.
After months of deliberation, the high court agreed in May to hear what will be the first abortion case the 6-to-3 conservative majority will decide.
Both a district judge and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had ruled that Mississippi could not enforce the 2018 law that banned nearly all abortions at 15 weeks with exceptions for only “severe fetal abnormality,” but not rape and incest.
If the Supreme Court upholds the Mississippi law, it would undo decades of precedent set under Roe in 1973 and upheld under Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, where the court respectively ruled and reaffirmed that states could not ban abortion before the fetus is “viable” and can live outside the womb, which is generally around 24 to 28 weeks.
When the justices decided to hear the case, they said they would specifically examine the question of whether “all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.”
Depending on the scope of their decision on the Mississippi law, the court’s ruling could allow other states to pass much more restrictive abortion bans without the risk of lower courts striking down those laws.
As a result, legal experts have said the case will represent the most significant ruling on reproductive rights since Casey nearly three decades ago, and the Thursday brief raises the stakes even more.
When Mississippi asked the justices to take up its case last June, the state’s attorney general, Lynn Fitch (R), explicitly stated that the petition’s questions “do not require the Court to overturn Roe or Casey.”
But that was before the court’s conservatives solidified their supermajority with the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett — who personally opposes abortion — following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
New Filing Takes Aim at Roe
With the new filing, it appears that Fitch views the high court’s altered makeup as an opportunity to undermine the constitutional framework that has been in place for the better part of the last century.
“The Constitution’s text says nothing about abortion,” Fitch wrote in the brief, arguing that American society has changed so much that the previous rulings need to be reheard.
“Today, adoption is accessible and on a wide scale women attain both professional success and a rich family life, contraceptives are more available and effective, and scientific advances show that an unborn child has taken on the human form and features months before viability,” she added, claiming the power should be left to state lawmakers.
“Roe and Casey shackle states to a view of the facts that is decades out of date,” she continued. “The national fever on abortion can break only when this Court returns abortion policy to the states.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents Mississippi’s sole abortion provider in the suit against the state’s law, painted Fitch’s effort as one that will have a chilling effect on abortion rights nationwide.
“Mississippi has stunningly asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe and every other abortion rights decision in the last five decades,” Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of the group said in a statement Thursday. “Today’s brief reveals the extreme and regressive strategy, not just of this law, but of the avalanche of abortion bans and restrictions that are being passed across the country.”
The Supreme Court has not yet said exactly when during its fall term it will hear oral arguments on the Mississippi case, but a decision is expected to come down by next June or July, as is standard.
An anticipated ruling just months before the 2022 midterms will almost certainly position abortion as a top issue at the ballot box.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (Politico)
Republicans Boycott Jan. 6 Committee After Pelosi Rejects Two of McCarthy’s Picks
The House Minority Leader said that unless House Speaker Pelosi reinstated the two members, Republicans will launch their own investigation into the insurrection.
Pelosi Vetoes Republicans
Republicans are boycotting the select committee to investigate the insurrection after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) rejected two of the five GOP members Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) picked to serve on the panel Wednesday.
In a statement, Pelosi cited the “statements and actions” of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Oh.) and Jim Banks (R-In.), whose nominations she said she was opposing “with respect for the integrity of the investigation.”
Jordan and Banks — both staunch allies of former President Donald Trump — have helped propagate the previous leader’s false election claims, opposed efforts to investigate the insurrection, and voted not to certify the election for President Joe Biden.
A senior Democratic aide also specifically told The Washington Post that Democrats did not want Jordan on the panel because he reportedly helped Trump strategized how to overturn the election and due to the fact he spoke to the then-president on Jan. 6, meaning there is a possibility he could be called to testify before the very same committee.
The aide also said that Democrats opposed Banks’ selection because of a statement he issued after McCarthy chose him.
In the statement, the representative compared the insurrection to the racial justice protests last summer, implied that the rioters were just normal American’s expressing their political views, and claimed the committee was a political ploy “to justify the Left’s authoritarian agenda.”
Notably, Pelosi did say she would accept McCarthy’s three other nominees — including Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Wi.), who also voted against certifying Biden’s win.
McCarthy Threatens Separate Investigation
McCarthy, however, refused to select new members, and instead opted to remove all his appointees from the would-be bipartisan committee.
In a statement condemning the move, the minority leader said that Pelosi’s action “represents an egregious abuse of power.”
“Denying the voices of members who have served in the military and law enforcement, as well as leaders of standing committees, has made it undeniable that this panel has lost all legitimacy and credibility and shows the Speaker is more interested in playing politics than seeking the truth,” he said.
“Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republican nominees, Republicans will not be party to their sham process and will instead pursue our own investigation of the facts.”
Pelosi defended her decision during a press conference Thursday, where she said that Banks and Jordan were “ridiculous” choices for the panel.
“When statements are ridiculous and fall into the realm of, ‘You must be kidding,’ there’s no way that they’re going to be on the committee,” she added.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNBC)
More Republican Are Pushing COVID Vaccinations, But the Party Remains Divided on Its Messaging
The renewed effort to encourage vaccination comes as the surge in COVID cases caused by the delta variant continues to disproportionately impact Republican-led states with low vaccination rates.
GOP Leaders Ramps Up Vaccination Push
In recent days, more Republican leaders and prominent conservatives have ramped up efforts to encourage members of their party to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the U.S. continues to see massive surges from the delta variant.
Some, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have been pushing Americans to get vaccinated for months — a call he reiterated again on Tuesday. Many others, however, have been reticent to do the same until recently.
Most notable on that list is Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the no. 2 Republican in House leadership, who just got his first dose over the weekend after resisting vaccination, claiming he had antibodies from previously contracting COVID. Scalise explained he changed his mind because of delta and encouraged others to do the same.
“There shouldn’t be any hesitancy over whether or not it’s safe and effective,” he said.
The top leader is set to continue pushing that advice. Earlier this week, the GOP Doctors Caucus announced that it would hold a news conference Thursday alongside Scalise and the third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), to encourage vaccination.
Rank and File Republicans Continue To Cast Doubt, Spread Misinformation
There are still plenty of Republicans working to undermine the renewed push to get their party vaccinated.
While many have painted vaccination as a matter of freedom of choice, others have sought to downplay the virus. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state currently accounts for 40% of all new COVID cases, dismissed the spikes as the result of a “seasonal virus” on Monday.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk — who has had COVID twice — echoed that in a statement to reporters on Tuesday, where he argued that COVID is just something everyone has to live with.
“This is something we deal with in our lives on a daily basis; ever since I’ve been born, there’s sicknesses, there’s flu, there’s different diseases,” he said.
Some members of the GOP have used their positions of power to actively fight against vaccination. That includes Sen. Ron Johnson (Wi.), who has openly said he is not vaccinated. He has also been widely condemned for promoting unproven treatments and false information about vaccines during interviews and congressional hearings.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), who has repeatedly refused to share her vaccination status, has also drawn ire for sharing misinformation and continually comparing COVID prevention efforts to the Holocaust.
Greene was temporarily suspended from Twitter earlier this week for sharing false information on Monday, but she continued to utilize her spotlight to spread misinformation about vaccine-related deaths and side effects during a press conference the following day.
While those who downplay the coronavirus and spread false information about vaccinations are certainly not representative of the entire Republican Party, they are some of the most visible.
Greene and many of her counterparts who push anti-vaccine narratives have frequently been accused of acting in inflammatory ways to get more press — a strategy that more often than not tends to work in their favor.
As a result, Republicans who want to encourage people to get the jabs will have their work cut out for them. Even many of those who have not openly expressed skepticism themselves have still let it flourish in the party for so long by not publicly pushing back against claims from members who sow disinformation.
The GOP’s broader failure to unify around a singular message on vaccines shows clearly among the party’s base.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News, poll 86% of Democrats have received at least one shot, but just 45% of Republicans have done the same. While just 6% of Democrats say they are not likely to get the vaccine, 47% of Republicans said they probably will not, and 38% said they definitely will not.
Meanwhile, Republican-led states with low vaccination rates are suffering the most from the new spike in cases and the rapid spread of the delta variant.
Arkansas, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country at just 35%, is currently reporting the highest per-capita cases in the U.S. Hospitalizations have gone up 85% in the state in the last two weeks, placing some hospital systems on the brink of collapse — a problem also faced by parts of Missouri, which has the third-highest COVID cases nationwide.