If Steve Bannon surrenders to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on Thursday as expected, he will be one block from the federal court where he and a triple amputee war veteran were charged with siphoning huge sums from a crowd-funded effort to build a border wall.
Bannon escaped the federal charges when he became one of 73 people granted pardons during then-President Donald Trump’s final hours in office. Trump could have easily made it 74 by including Bannon’s co-defendant Brian Kolfage, who lost both legs and part of an arm while serving in Iraq.
But despite Trump’s many declarations of support for combat veterans, he remains someone who ducked the draft during the Vietnam War by claiming he suffered from bone spurs. And to him, Kolfage was just some sucker who volunteered to place himself in harm’s way.
Without a pardon, Kolfage continued to face wire fraud and tax evasion charges for his part in a crowd-funded effort with the purported aim of building a wall on our border with Mexico. He was facing a maximum of 20 years in prison when he decided to cut a deal.
In a virtual appearance in Manhattan Federal Court on April 21, Kolfage entered a guilty plea with the assurance he would receive no more than 63 months in prison. Judge Analisa Torres followed the standard protocol of inquiring if the defendant was of a sound mind and not under the influence of any drugs. Kolfage said he had been taking prescribed medications.
“It’s a narcotic for nerve pain related to my amputations of my legs,” he said. “It’s related to my combat disability.”
But Kolfage assured the court that his thoughts were clear. He proceeded with a prepared statement which described using a GoFundMe campaign called “We Build the Wall” to raise $25 million and then loot it using a shell company and fake invoices.
“You promised the public that 100 percent of the money would be used for building the wall; is that right?” the judge asked.
“That’s correct,” Kolfage said.
“Despite your promise, you made an agreement with others to keep a large sum of money for yourself; is that right?”
“That is correct.”
Kolfage admitted to taking $350,000, buying himself a Land Rover and a Jupiter Marine pleasure boat that he christened Warfighter. The indictment accused Bannon of pocketing $1 million. But thanks to the last-minute pardon, Bannon was a free man and spent the day of Kolfage’s guilty plea hosting his War Room podcast.
Even as Kolfage was admitting to the scheme to bilk concerned citizens, Bannon was on his show with former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes, stoking the same fears that caused so many people to contribute to the We Build the Wall campaign. Bannon declared that President Joe Biden should be impeached for failing to stem the influx of immigrants via Mexico.
“The initiation, exacerbation of this invasion of our country,” Bannon said. “This is what I’m talking about.”
Cortes said, “All Americans suffer from an open border. There’s never a good time to tolerate this kind of lawlessness, which not only destabilizes our country but also destabilizes the rest of the hemisphere.”
Cortes seemed either to have forgotten or shrugged away the lawlessness surrounding Bannon’s We Build the Wall effort. Cortes went on to say that economically America is going back to the 1970s, but “at least in the 1970s, we had a controlled border.” He contended that the current situation at the border “is created, it’s by design.”
“It is absolutely intentional,” he said. “This is mass trespassing into America, a breaking and entering into our country.”
He accused Biden of being “willfully derelict” in the “first function of government.”
“To keep order, to maintain public order, “ Cortes said. “He has to be impeached.”
All this was being streamed on the day Bannon’s one-time partner was admitting under oath to joining him in what would constitute not only shameless larceny but also rank treason by the standards of Trumpism if Trumpism had any actual standards at all.
And, to make it all the more morally bankrupt, the partner was a triple amputee combat vet whom Trump had chosen not to pardon while letting Bannon skate. Trump’s supporters gave a further measure of their own moral myopism by just accepting it.
The judge set Kolfage’s sentencing for Sept. 6 and it seemed that Bannon would be free to continue podcasting poisonous falsehoods compounded by rank hypocrisy. Call the show The Lie Room.
But then, as Kolfage’s sentencing date neared, it was moved to December. And the day that Kolfage was to have learned how long he will be behind bars, The Washington Post broke the story that Bannon was scheduled to surrender to the Manhattan district attorney to face criminal charges on Thursday. A presidential pardon does not preclude a state prosecution.
The federal case had been assembled with the help of investigators from both the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the New York state attorney general. Any of those same investigators on a state case will already be intimately familiar with the evidence should the Manhattan DA file charges related to We Build the Wall.
Some insight into what Bannon will face comes from a moment in Kolfage’s plea hearing three months ago, when Judge Torres asked the prosecutors if they had sufficient evidence for a conviction.
“Certainly,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos replied. “The government’s proof would include bank records and other financial transfer records related to both the donations and the transfer of funds, directly or indirectly, to Mr. Kolfage’s bank accounts.”
He said the government also had “public representations in the form of social media posts, news articles, and other statements on television.”
In addition, “There were emails and text messages obtained pursuant to search warrants executed on both email and iCloud accounts, and also on cell phones and other electronic devices. And, finally, the government’s proof would also include statements of witnesses, including donors.”
If Bannon surrenders on Thursday as expected, he will be arraigned in state court a block from the federal court where Kolfage is slated to be sentenced in December.
Kolfage can expect to be doing federal time when Bannon learns whether he will end up in state prison. Bannon may end up wishing he had never been pardoned.
Either way, Trump supporters will be left with a question that actually merits a podcast: How can you support a man who gives a buddy a break and lets a vet who lost three limbs in combat face more than five years for the same crime?
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