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How former Breitbart chairman arrested on a $28m yacht got back in the president’s good books

Steve Bannon has been pardoned by Donald Trump on the eve of the president’s departure from the White House as a remarkable reward for loyally insisting that the election was stolen.

Bannon, 67, was a surprise last-minute addition to the list of 143 people who had their sentences commuted or were pardoned.

In recent weeks he has used his podcast, War Room, to claim repeatedly that the election was stolen and to highlight some of the most extreme pro-Trump voices.

On November 6 he was permanently suspended from Twitter for saying that Dr Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded for treason. 

The famed flame-thrower was Trump’s campaign manager in the final stages of the 2016 election, having risen from his role at Breitbart to become one of the most influential right-wing voices. 

Bannon joined Trump in the White House but fell out with him in spectacular fashion and turned on Trump and, in particular, his son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

Steve Bannon, pictured with Trump in the White House in January 2017, has been pardoned

Bannon is pictured walking out of court in New York on August 20 after his arrest

Bannon is pictured walking out of court in New York on August 20 after his arrest

He was forced out and roamed Europe trying to set up a right-wing political movement across the continent, before returning to the US where in August he was arrested for allegedly attempting to defraud Trump supporters who donated to a crowdfunded effort to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Bannon and his three co-conspirators faced up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

The White House announced Bannon’s pardon shortly before 1am on Wednesday.

‘President Trump granted a full pardon to Stephen Bannon,’ the White House said.

‘Prosecutors pursued Mr. Bannon with charges related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project. Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen.’

Bannon was the campaign CEO for its last 88 days after the ousting of Paul Manafort – who became a convicted felon himself. 

The Virginia-born strategist, who worked alongside Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager, encouraged Trump to go after his primary opponents, clash with Republican Party elites, and launch tirades against China and global trade.

Bannon clashed with many within the White House - in particular Jared Kushner (right)

Bannon clashed with many within the White House – in particular Jared Kushner (right)

Bannon dismissed Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, as 'globalists' and openly mocked them

Bannon dismissed Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, as ‘globalists’ and openly mocked them

Bannon was seen as being a driving force behind attempts to frame a populist appeal to ‘forgotten’ Americans.

He had informally advised Trump before jumping on board from the conservative Breitbart website, which was backed by billionaire Rebekah Mercer.

He became, in the White House, Trump’s Chief Strategist, with a West Wing office close to the Oval Office.

Bannon for a while had the ear of the president, but made the fatal mistake of clashing with the other power center: Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who Bannon sneeringly named Javanka.

He fought internecine battles and sometimes forged unexpected partnerships with Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Preibus, during chaotic early days of the Trump administration.

But after it was revealed he had been cooperating with Michael Wolff in his scathing Trump takedown, Fire and Fury, the president fired him, in August 2017.

Not only had Bannon consented to on-record interviews, he took aim at Trump family members, including Donald Trump Jr.

He called the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting about dirt on Hillary Clinton that was attended by Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Kushner ‘treasonous’ and ‘unpatriotic.’

He predicted of authorities: ‘They’re going to crack Don Jr. like an egg.’

Wolff reported in 2018 that Bannon told investigators: ‘Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad sh**, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.’

Bannon, pictured in the White House in January 2017, made many enemies within the team

Bannon, pictured in the White House in January 2017, made many enemies within the team

Trump in characteristic fashion distanced himself with Bannon after throwing him overboard.

HOW ALLEGED FRAUD  WORKED 

In 2018, Kolfage set up the GoFundMe account in support of President Trump and to prove the nation’s appetite for a border wall between the US and Mexico.

It was inundated with donations from Republicans and had collected more than $20million by December that year. GoFundMe became suspicious of where the money was going and warned Kolfage to donate it to a legitimate charity or refund everyone who’d given to it.

That is when, prosecutors say, Bannon, Timothy Shea and Andrew Badolato got involved. They used shell companies and We Build The Wall Inc, a not-for-profit formed by Bannon to launder the money back to Kolfage and keep some for themselves, it’s claimed.

The fund would pay the shell companies, then they would deposit the money back into accounts held by Kolfage or his wife, marking the transactions down as for ‘media’, ‘consulting’ or ‘social media’, it is alleged.

Despite claiming on the GoFundMe that he’d ‘never take a penny’ from the donations, the indictment alleges that Kolfage took a $20,000-a-month salary from it in addition to a one-off, $100,000 payment. In total, he took $350,000, it’s claimed.

Bannon allegedly took $1million from it – some of which he used to pay Kolfage, but some he allegedly kept and spent on hotels, travel and credit card debt.

‘Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency’ Trump said at the time.

‘When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.’

After he was out at the White House, Bannon was subpoenaed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators who were probing Trump campaign contacts with Russians.

He reportedly met with them for 20 hours, speaking on multiple occasions, and his assessments are reflected in the Mueller report.

The former Goldman Sachs banker is worth an estimated $48 million, according to White House financial disclosures made in 2017.

He lost his lucrative backing from Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, after the publication of Fire and Fury. He also lost his job at Breitbart, which pushed him to seek new horizons.

For the first year, Bannon roamed Europe, seeking to establish a right-wing populist surge of the sort he had presided over in the United States.

From his base at an 800-year-old monastery outside of Rome, Bannon travelled to Paris, telling the far-right Front National that ‘history is on our side and will bring us victory’.

Italy was unimpressed, and last year, Italy’s Culture Ministry, which owns the mountaintop monastery, withdrew a 19-year lease, citing violations of contractual obligations.

In May that ruling was overturned, allowing work on the Dignitatis Humanae Institute think-tank to continue.

More recently Bannon has retained some of his power as an influential Trump world voice, appearing frequently on television and running a podcast where Trump aides are guests. There have been persistent reports of regular contact between the two men, but no known in person meetings.

The former investment banker was arrested on August 20 on a $28 million yacht, owned by a fugitive Chinese billionaire.

Also detained were his associates Brian Kolfage, 38; Andrew Badolato, 56, a venture capitalist from Sarasota, Florida; and Timothy Shea, 49, of Castle Rock, Colorado.

Kolfage, an Iraq war veteran, had both legs amputated and lost his right arm in a rocket attack.

He had created a string of pro-Trump websites using bogus stories to draw clicks and sell ads. His Instagram was a stream of pro-Trump memes, interspersed with photos of family holidays to the Bahamas, or nights at the Emmy Awards with his social media-influencer wife, Ashley.

Shea sold a Trump-themed energy drink he marketed as containing ‘liberal tears.’

Badolato had a trail of failed businesses and unpaid tax bills.

Trump world star: Donald Trump Jr. visited a section of the wall built by Brian Kolfage's scheme in New Mexico in July 2019

Trump world star: Donald Trump Jr. visited a section of the wall built by Brian Kolfage’s scheme in New Mexico in July 2019

Husband and wife scam: Prosecutors say Brian Kolfage funneled cash to himself to pay for boat payments, cosmetic surgery and tax and credit card debt, with his wife Ashley, 34, getting cash which was concealed too. She is not indicted

Husband and wife scam: Prosecutors say Brian Kolfage funneled cash to himself to pay for boat payments, cosmetic surgery and tax and credit card debt, with his wife Ashley, 34, getting cash which was concealed too. She is not indicted

Luxury: The Cayman Islands-registered Lady May where Steve Bannon was seized

Luxury: The Cayman Islands-registered Lady May where Steve Bannon was seized

When Trump’s promise to ‘build the wall’ floundered – in three years the government has only completed 30 new miles of border fencing, and replaced an additional 240 miles – the trio took matters into their own hands.

They recruited Bannon to champion their efforts.

He was brought in, prosecutors claim, when GoFundMe expressed concern at the legitimacy of the fundraising. Kolfage turned to Bannon for help with the creation of a scheme to re-allocate the money to a series of non-profits and shell companies.

Donald Trump Jr called it ‘private enterprise at its finest.’

‘What you guys are doing is pretty amazing,’ said Trump Jr in 2018, with Kolfage next to him in his wheelchair, adding that the fundraising group showed ‘what capitalism is all about.’

All four were charged of swindling donors to the ill-fated wall-building scheme – which has so far built less than five miles of border wall in New Mexico with the $25 million they raised.

One of the biggest donors to We Build the Wall was a seven-year-old in Texas who set up a hot chocolate stand so he could collect donations for the effort, and raised $25,000.

Another man, Harvey Garlotte, from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, donated $60. Last year he and others complained to the authorities in Florida, where We Build The Wall is based.

Kolfage on Twitter called Garlotte’s complaint ‘hilarious’.

Prosecutors in New York accused the four of treating the funds as a private piggy bank, which was spent on home renovations, payments toward a boat named Warfighter, a Land Rover SUV, a golf cart, jewelery, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt, the indictment claimed.

‘Everyone who donates right now, your money goes toward this wall — 100% of your money goes toward this wall,’ Kolfage insisted in a video advertisement on Facebook.

‘It’s not going to line someone’s pocket. I’m taking zero dollars as a salary. No compensation. It’s going toward the wall.’

Privately Kolfage struck a deal with Bannon and Badolato to earn $100,000 from the wall funds immediately and $20,000 per month after that, according to the indictment.

Bannon was defiant, strolling suntanned and self-assured from court in Manhattan to proclaim: ‘This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall.’

The New Yorker described his look as ‘James Bond villain in retirement’.

House before his arrest: Steve Bannon, wearing his distinctive two shirts, was on deck checking his phone hours before federal agents, with a C-130 plane overhead, arrested him

House before his arrest: Steve Bannon, wearing his distinctive two shirts, was on deck checking his phone hours before federal agents, with a C-130 plane overhead, arrested him 

How it was marketed: This was the GoFundMe originally set up to 'privately fund' a border wall

How it was marketed: This was the GoFundMe originally set up to ‘privately fund’ a border wall

Having paid his $5 million bail, Bannon was once again at the helm of his podcast War Room, denouncing the charges.

‘I am not going to back down. This is a political hit job,’ he said.

Trump – who fell out with the former Breitbart editor in spectacular fashion, dismissing him in August 2017 as washed-up ‘Sloppy Steve’ – tried to distance himself from Bannon, saying: ‘I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time.’

Bannon is the eighth close Trump associate to be arrested or convicted of a crime, a list that also includes former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

Stone, Manafort and Flynn have also now been pardoned.

Asked about We Build The Wall, Trump replied: ‘I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.’

In recent time he has been back in the United States, and spent the summer on the 150-ft superyacht, owned by Guo Wengui.

Bannon has worked for Wengui, who sometimes goes by the name Miles Kwok, since shortly after his ouster from the White House three years ago.

Guo has helped bankroll Bannon’s efforts to attack China, and paid Bannon $1 million for work between 2018 and 2019, Axios reported.

Bannon helped make confronting China a centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 campaign, a posture the president has continued into his tenure in office.

Another key tenet of that election was building a wall on the southern border that Trump said Mexico – not the U.S. government – would pay for.

Bannon began scheming to start a new U.S. political party that he planned to call the ‘National Union Party’ – the temporary name Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party had adopted in 1864 to attract War Democrats and Unionists – imagining that he could unite disaffected populists on both ends of the political spectrum and make his own run at the White House.


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