Steve Bannon has dismissed federal charges against him as a “political hit job” following his arrest for allegedly defrauding donors to a crowdfunded US-Mexico border wall project and laundering the proceeds.
He pleaded not guilty to one count each of wire fraud and money laundering on Thursday and was released on a $5m bond following a brief court appearance in US District Court in New York.
On Friday, he returned to his radio programme and podcast War Room Pandemic to announce he is “not going to back down.”
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“This is a political hit job,” he said. “Everybody knows I love a fight. I was called ‘honey badger’ for many years. You know, ‘Honey badger doesn’t give.’ … I’m in this for the long haul. I’m in this for the fight. I’m going to continue to fight.”
As he left court on Thursday, he cast the indictments against him and three other men involved with the alleged scheme as a “fiasco” intended to “stop people who want to build the wall.”
“This was to stop and intimidate people who want to talk about the wall,” he said on Friday programme, as reported by Right Wing Watch. “This is to stop and intimidate people who have the president’s back on building the wall … We’re never going to stop saying that you can’t stop this wall.”
Mr Bannon – a former White House senior adviser and Donald Trump’s campaign chief executive officer – was arrested at 7.15am on Thursday morning by agents with the New York Field Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service while he was aboard a Chinese billionaire’s yacht off the coast of Connecticut.
Three other men involved with a “We Build the Wall” charity – Brian Kolfage, Andy Badolato and Timothy Shea – were also arrested on Thursday. Including Mr Bannon, they each face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
“To induce donors to donate to the campaign, Kolfage and Bannon – each of whom, as detailed herein, exerted significant control over We Build the Wall – repeatedly and falsely assured the public that Kolfage would ‘not take a penny in salary or compensation’ and that ‘100% of the funds raised'” would be used for the crowdfunding campaign’s stated purpose, according to a 24-page indictment filed in US District Court in New York and unsealed on Thursday.
“As Bannon publicly stated, ‘we’re a volunteer organisation’,” according to the indictment. “Those representations were false.”
The men “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalising on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretence that all of that money would be spent on construction” along the US-Mexico border, Acting US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.
It’s among the most politically charged cases connected to the president’s campaign in the hands of the new US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who entered the role after her predecessor Geoffrey Berman was abruptly fired by the president in June.
The We Build the Wall campaign raised more than $25m but was used to fund their own lavish lifestyles through “sham invoices and accounts to launder donations” to conceal their crimes, according to Inspector-in-Charge Philip R Bartlett.
Mr Bannon allegedly took $1m from that campaign, funnelled through a nonprofit organisation under his control, and allegedly used “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to cover personal expenses.
Prosecutors alleged that Mr Kolfage, a US Air Force veteran, “covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds” raised by We Build the Wall.
The president immediately sought to distance himself from the indictments.
We Build the Wall began as a massive GoFundMe campaign, drawing ire from members of the administration by circumventing the president’s campaign trail promise and legal and congressional obstacles for a massive border wall project with a privately funded effort.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted that “President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat, and perhaps raise funds.”