Steve Bannon pleads not guilty to ‘Build the Wall’ fraud scheme

US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has pleaded not guilty to charges that he ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall in federal court, hours after he was pulled from a yacht off the coast of Connecticut and arrested.

He and three others were charged in an indictment unsealed on Thursday in Manhattan federal court.

At his hearing the same day, Bannon had his hands cuffed in front of him while a large, white mask covered most of his face. He rocked back and forward as he sat on a chair in a holding cell at Manhattan federal court, from where he appeared via video as his lawyers were on the telephone.

The magistrate judge approved Bannon’s release on $5 million bail, secured by $1.75 million in assets.

The “We Build The Wall” fundraiser was headed by men who pushed their close ties to President Trump, giving their effort a legitimacy that helped them raise more than $25 million.

But according to the criminal charges unsealed on Thursday, much of the money never made it to the wall. Instead, it was used to line the pockets of group members, including Bannon, who served in Trump’s White House and worked for his campaign.

He allegedly took over $1 million, using some to secretly pay co-defendant Brian Kolfage, the founder of the project, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.

US-Mexico border wall

Trump’s signature effort to build a wall along the US-Mexico border — a key 2016 campaign promise — has struggled amid court challenges, logistical hurdles and opposition from Democrats in Congress.

READ MORE: Trump threatens to shut govt for ‘years’ over wall funding

In the meantime, more than 330,000 supporters have donated to private fundraisers and profiteers who have promised to build the wall on their own, according to a 2019 Reuters investigation. Those efforts likewise have met with limited success.

Trump recently criticised that section of wall after it showed signs of erosion, saying it was “only done to make me look bad,” even though it was built by his supporters.

A spokeswoman for Bannon could not be immediately reached for comment.

Also charged were Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea.

Kolfage is due to appear in federal court later on Thursday in Florida, while Bannon is set to appear in federal court in Manhattan. The other two defendants are due to appear in courts in the Middle District of Florida and Colorado.

Voice of a nationalistic, outsider conservatism

As a top adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign who later served as chief White House strategist, Bannon helped articulate the right-wing populism and fierce opposition to immigration that have helped define Trump’s 3-1/2 years in office. Bannon left the White House in August 2017.

Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being tapped to serve as chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign in its critical final months, when he pushed a scorched earth strategy that included highlighting the stories of former President Bill Clinton’s accusers.

After the election, he served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of Trump’s administration.

The blunt-spoken, combative Bannon was the voice of a nationalistic, outsider conservatism, and he pushed Trump to follow through on some of his most contentious campaign promises, including his travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries.

But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers, and his high profile sometimes irked Trump. He was pushed out in August 2017.

Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before becoming a Hollywood producer, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called “War Room” that began during the president’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.

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