Steve Bannon was indicted this week on wire fraud and money laundering charges for helping serial grifter, Brian Kolfage, embezzle money from his wildly successful, though grammatically awkward “We Build the Wall” GoFundMe scam. Bannon’s co-defendants include Kolfage and two other bottom-dwelling chiselers of little consequence. Co-defendant, Andrew Badalato is a mobbed-up crook who pretends to run a venture capital company under the charming name, White Knights and Vultures. As a bonus he’s been accused of multiple sexual assaults. The other defendant is Timothy Shea, a random MAGALand profiteer who markets an energy drink called “Winning Energy” with the tagline, “made from liberal tears.” His as-yet unindicted wife, Amanda, was the Treasurer of the We Build the Wall scam.
What’s wrong with this picture? The gratifying prospect of a rumpled Bannon rotting into a saggy pile inside an ill-fitting orange jumpsuit obscures the real story of this prosecution. Miles Davis once explained about jazz, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” The real story is who wasn’t indicted and why.
All the media attention has centered on the fate of Steve Bannon, the trailer park Svengali who came nearest to establishing an ideological core for an administration otherwise consumed by swindling. Bannon was ousted from the Trump court for mentioning in his book that Trump’s Russian involvement centered on money laundering. The family never forgave him for that treason.
The We Build the Wall scam was organized, run, and promoted by a collection of favored Trump allies and the President’s own son, but the only figures indicted are Bannon and a collection of undistinguished deplorables like Shea, bottom-feeding nobodies in the MAGASphere Griftopia. Players in this scam who’ve maintained close ties to the family appear in the charge document only as unindicted conspirators, described only in pseudonyms like “Associate-1.” Prosecutors only indicted the figures Trump doesn’t care to protect. How did that happen?
Back on June 20, Attorney General Barr fired Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney in Manhattan who was overseeing this case. Career prosecutor and respected professional, Audrey Strauss, was next in line behind Berman. She stepped into the interim role and continued the case.
Strauss is a pro who, by all accounts takes her role seriously, but she’s not blind. After watching Barr remove as many federal prosecutors as it took to derail sentencing for loyal Trump ally Roger Stone, she knew what she had to do. Her only chance to continue the case in any form would have been to drop the charges against whoever Barr was trying to protect. One phrase in the indictment is the relic of this compromise. The opening sentence lists the defendants in the case, followed by this dangling tell, “and others.” Who are “the others” who committed these crimes and why aren’t they named? Who was the Administration shielding?
Barr’s interference may have helped Kris Kobach, Tom Tancredo, Trump-connected wall contractor Fisher Industries, Erik Prince and perhaps Don Jr. himself escape prosecution. Since the case is focused on Bannon and these low-level scammers, it will fail to explore the financial records that could tie this scam to the Trump family businesses. In jazz, it’s the notes you don’t play.
We Build the Wall was the score of a lifetime, hatched from a criminal with a brain as small as his conscience, yielding a bounty beyond his imagination. When Trump failed to force Congress to fund his border wall in 2018, serial MAGALand grifter Brian Kolfage hit on the idea of starting a GoFundMe to raise the necessary funds. Before the company shut down Kolfage’s scam, he was sitting on a $20 million mountain of cash. What he needed was a way to launder it into his pocket.
Luckily for him, money laundering is a MAGALand specialty. A consortium of deplorables, led by Bannon, descended on Kolfage to help mop up his plunder. According to the indictment, their first step was to set up shell entities through which the money would be laundered. Shea helped set up “Non-Profit-1” as a “service provider” to the imaginary wall project. Despite very public promises never to take a dime of the donors’ money, Kolfage and his wife would be handsomely paid through that shell organization for their “services.” This is the same structure of embezzlement and money laundering that got the Trump family charities shut down, and the machinery they use to embezzle campaign donations.
The conspirators arranged to pay Kolfage and his wife an initial lump sum, followed by $20,000 a month. Kolfage, now bumped up to a different league, had moved from grifter to mark. As an example of how Kolfage was being used, an unnamed “Associate-1” laundered $50,000 of funds embezzled from the charity to pay Kolfage’s $20,000 monthly stipend, while pocketing the rest. It’s hard to find good money laundering help these days.
From the indictment, “Kolfage wrote to Defendent, Badolato in a text message: as far as [the public] know[s] no one is getting paid” and “salaries will never be disclosed.”” Nice guy.
Kolfage used portions of the money embezzled from his charity to pay for this boat, which he sailed in a Trump boat parade. Portions were also used to purchase plastic surgery.
He would pocket at least $350K that’s documented so far, but that’s a fraction of the million+ that Bannon would steal for himself alone. Who else got a cut? Failed Republican Senate candidate and noisy racist Kris Kobach served as the group’s general counsel and board member. He pocketed more from this scam than Kolfage, almost half a million in “fees.” In fact, everybody seems to have played this grift better than Kolfage. Most of them will keep their winnings and escape prosecution.
Nobody seems to have made out better than Trump’s favorite wall contractor, a tiny company in a tiny North Dakota town called Fisher Industries. Fisher is an insignificant private construction company which, before America was Made Great Again, had barely over 100m in reported annual revenue. It’s first CEO, David Fisher, went to prison for child porn. Fisher’s next CEO, Michael Fisher, went to prison for embezzlement. Fisher’s current CEO, Tom Fisher, was an unindicted participant in the scam that sent his brother to prison. Fisher has been nosing its way into the border wall racket. The company took in at least $1.5 from the wall scam, but the real amount is likely much higher.
Fisher has no particular expertise or experience relevant to the wall project and their bids were summarily rejected by the Army Corps of Engineers. Yet the President personally lobbied to force the government to steer money to these crooks. Put in a pin in that fact, because it becomes important. Sections of wall constructed by Fisher are already failing. One particularly shoddy section Fisher built by damaging a butterfly preserve in Texas is in danger of falling into the Rio Grande and obstructing navigation.
How does some insignificant, corrupt, provincial building contractor a thousand miles from the Southern border earn the attention of a President who works less than half a day and has spent a quarter of his time in office golfing? The Fisher family have been prodigious Republican donors in recent years, but their largesse, still less than $100,000, is not enough to land them contracts that could potentially increase their annual revenues by 4000%. There’s only one way to earn the help of the Don – you have to offer him a cut. We won’t know the truth about the Trump family’s relationship to Fisher Industries until Trump’s tax returns are made public, or a prosecutor investigates the company’s activities. This could explain why Barr started firing prosecutors in Manhattan.
When the We Build the Wall grifters decided they needed to construct a Potemkin wall to appear legitimate, which vendor did they seek out for the project? Naturally, they wanted Fisher, the wall contractor closest to the President. According to Kris Kobach, the President himself was aware of the scam and offered the conspirators his explicit support on numerous occasions.
The scammers found a sympathetic landowner who would let them set up a small section of wall near the border, built by Fisher. It isn’t yet clear how much We Build the Wall money was funneled through Fisher for their little demonstration wall, but it was enough to earn the attention and approval of the Trump family. The family sent Don Jr. to promote the project at a gonzo symposium of right wing nutjobs in June 2019. Don Jr. praised the grifters and offered his enthusiastic support for the project without referencing any family relationship to the contractors.
Also involved in this scam were professional racist Tom Tancredo and mercenary Erik Prince, of the DeVos family. There was that nutty former Milwaukee County Sheriff, David Clarke and former pitcher Curt Schilling who became a rightwing star after racist and bigoted comments cost him his broadcast career. All were board members not mentioned in the indictment. What role did they play in the money laundering? What did they know and what did they ignore? Thanks to Bill Barr, we won’t know because those lines of inquiry are cut off.
All the figures involved in this scam who were both important and loyal to the Trump family coincidentally avoided mention in the indictment. Only the apostate Steve Bannon and a rattling collection of MAGALand bottom-feeders were sacrificed. As for the racist rubes who were fleeced by this scam, they are proudly standing by their grifter. Take a look at the comments on Kolfage’s Facebook page to watch the cult slurp down their Kool Aid.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Kolfage. His life was nearly destroyed in Iraq, in a campaign that was itself built on a scam. Returning to the US he found the motivation to keep striving as a petty fake news entrepreneur. Yes, he’s a seedy chiseler, but what was he supposed to do? Having sacrificed two legs and a hand to a country which would promptly forget him, his career choice was the most honest representation of what our culture demands – and rewards. Undaunted by serial failures he persevered until he became the dog who caught the car; a low rent grifter feeding on the seedy social-media margins of Griftopia who one day hooked a whale he couldn’t land. Crooks higher on the food chain descended, abusing his ignorance and poor connections to carve out the choicest morsels for themselves, leaving him exposed to dozens of years of prison while they skate with the President’s protection.
It’s the notes you don’t play.