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Opinion | Steve Bannon’s Art of the Grift

There was a measure of poetic justice in Thursday’s news that Steve Bannon, the populist political guru who charted President Trump’s rise to power, was arrested on a yacht on Long Island Sound and charged with defrauding hundreds of thousands of Mr. Trump’s supporters.

The pitch was like a twisted version of the 19th-century campaign to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty with small donations from individual Americans: This time, the American people would fund a wall along the southern border of the United States.

“It’s the American people coming together to chip in and give five bucks,” said Brian Kolfage, an Air Force veteran who, with Mr. Bannon’s help, created a nonprofit called We Build the Wall, ostensibly to raise money for the project.

They collected more than $25 million. They even built a short stretch of border wall near El Paso. But on Thursday, federal agents arrested Mr. Kolfage, Mr. Bannon and two of their associates, and charged the men with spending a chunk of the money on themselves.

The Justice Department said Mr. Kolfage used some of the money to buy a boat, “Warfighter,” which he sailed in a boat parade held in President Trump’s honor on July 4 in Destin, Fla. According to the government, Mr. Bannon pocketed about $1 million.

The alleged fraud, at first blush, amounts to a clever misappropriation of Mr. Trump’s political image. The nonprofit wrapped itself in Mr. Trump’s flag, billing itself as a vehicle for supporting the president’s agenda, using his picture in its advertising and emphasizing that it had sought advice from the Department of Homeland Security.

But the scheme is also quintessentially Trumpian — a faithful copy of the president’s knack for trading on the hopes of disaffected Americans. We Build the Wall, in other words, was basically a Trump tribute band.

The plan itself was cribbed directly from Mr. Trump. It is the president, after all, who has sold many Americans on the fantastical idea of a simple solution to a complex problem — a border wall, which experts describe as unlikely to stop illegal immigration.

Crucially, Mr. Trump sold the border wall from the outset as a workaround for people frustrated that they couldn’t achieve their policy goals through the democratic process. He said Mexico would pay, so there was no need to ask Congress. Then he tried to shift money from the defense budget to start construction.

We Build the Wall shared that ethos. As the nonprofit explained on its website, “Our mission is to unite private citizens that share a common belief in providing national security for our Southern Border through the construction, administration and maintenance of physical barriers inhibiting illegal entry into the United States.”

This wasn’t a lobbying group. The point wasn’t to persuade Congress to build the wall. The idea was to usurp a basic function of government.

At first, Mr. Kolfage said he was raising money to fund federal construction. Then, with Mr. Bannon’s help, he went back to donors and asked them to recommit their gifts instead to the private construction of a wall, according to the government. The men repeatedly insisted all the money would go toward construction of the wall; they were arrested Thursday because the government said they didn’t keep that promise. (Of course, it’s hardly clear that using the money to build a longer wall would have been a better outcome.)

Last year, Donald Trump Jr. flew to El Paso to speak before the privately funded section of the wall, which is about 300 feet long, describing it as “private enterprise at its finest.”

But the Trump administration soured on the project this summer. After concerns were raised about the stability of the wall, the president criticized the quality of its construction in July. He insisted he planned to build a better wall, even though his administration hired the same firm that the nonprofit had hired to build the El Paso wall.

On Thursday, the president said that paying privately for the border wall was “inappropriate.”

Mr. Bannon joins a long list of advisers to President Trump who have been charged with crimes, including Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman; Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser; and Michael Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer.

The details of the charges must have prompted at least a glimmer of recognition. Just last year, the president settled charges brought by the New York State attorney general that he had made personal use of donations to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, including to buy a $10,000 portrait of Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump agreed to close the foundation and donate its remaining money to “reputable” charities.

On Thursday, the White House resorted to its familiar insistence that this latest round of arrests did not involve people closely connected to the president. Mr. Bannon was dismissed as someone merely involved in “the early part of the administration.” Mr. Bannon worked as the president’s chief strategist from January 2017 to August 2017.

The looming question, however, is whether President Trump will keep Mr. Bannon at arm’s length. Americans can feel little confidence that Mr. Bannon will receive a fair trial and, if convicted, a fair punishment. By commuting Roger Stone’s sentence in July, Mr. Trump demonstrated a willingness to shelter his current and former associates from the legal consequences of their actions.

It is a sad reality of the moment that Americans have reason to question whether justice will be served.

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