Oops. Not only did the wall that Donald Trump promised to build never get built, but it turns out that some of his closest former confederates are now accused of deploying the slogan in the interests of building up nothing other than their own fortunes. A grizzled Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign adviser, wearing a green Barbour jacket was arrested this morning on charges of fraud by New York federal prosecutors. The contention of the Manhattan prosecutors is that Bannon, who is said to be worth tens of millions, pilfered about $1 million through a private group called We Build the Wall.
The advisory board contains a bevy of conservative all-stars, including former Rep. Tom Tancredo and Erik Prince. Kris Kobach was general counsel. Bannon was the chairman. Who did what will emerge in coming days. For now, according to Acting Manhattan US Attorney Audrey Strauss, ‘While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle.’
Trump distanced himself this morning, saying he hasn’t been dealing with Bannon ‘at all’ and that ‘I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.’ Back in 2017, Trump criticized the group’s private effort to build the wall, saying it was ‘only done to make me look bad’. That could well be the case now: while this development may not represent a dire threat to President Trump, it is more than an embarrassment. Coming on the day that Joe Biden is set to give his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, it will further add to the perception of a miasma of criminality swirling about his presidency.
Trump will hardly be the first president whose cronies got into hot water with law enforcement. Jimmy Carter had Bert Lance and Bill Clinton, the McDougals, among others. But the sheer scope and sweep of malversation surrounding Trump is breathtaking. He seems intent on setting a Guinness Book of World Records for employing confidence men. The man who pledged to drain the swamp has singlehandedly pumped more fetid water into it than almost anyone could have conceived. It seems that the only way you can avoid becoming soiled in the Trump administration is by wearing a pair of high water pants into the White House. Trump and his associates seem to regard the presidency as a prolonged exercise in personal fundraising rather than public service.
The fact that it is Acting Attorney Strauss who prosecuted this indictment will also raise more questions about Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr’s machinations to oust then-Manhattan Attorney General Geoffrey Berman. Speculation was that Berman was supposed to be neutered to help protect Trump’s personal tax records. But was Barr, at the behest of Trump, trying to knock out the case against Bannon so that he could return to help guide the Trump campaign this fall, much as he helped steer him to victory in 2016? At a minimum, Trump and Barr will face fresh and unwelcome scrutiny over their clumsy firing of Berman this past June.
So far, two of Trump’s former campaign managers — Paul Manafort and Steve Bannon — have attracted fresh publicity recently for their sordid maneuverings. Trump will likely pardon both in November. But he cannot be relishing the burst of publicity that both have attracted this week.
Nor is this all. Trump has other problems in Manhattan. US District Judge Victor Marrero quite rightly dismissed Trump’s bogus attempt to block prosecutors from procuring Trump’s tax records. Small wonder that Trump decamped from New York as his official residence to Florida last September. But if recent events are anything to go by, the walls truly are closing in on him.