- Lexi Churchillresearch reporter at the ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative unit.
- Perla Trevizoreporter at the ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative unit.
President Trump’s former campaign CEO and White House adviser, Steve Bannon, is his sixth close associate to face criminal charges by the Department of Justice. Bannon and three others are accused of defrauding donors to We Build the Wall, a private effort to build a wall along the Mexican border, and redirecting funds to fund their own lavish lifestyles. We follow the money and look at how an investigation last month showed a private wall project the funds were used for is already eroding and could be in danger of falling into the river. We speak with Perla Trevizo and Lexi Churchill, two reporters at the ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative unit.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’re breaking with convention. I’m Amy Goodman.
As the Republican National Convention begins this week, a sixth close associate of President Trump now faces criminal charges by the Department of Justice. Trump’s former campaign manager, chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is accused of defrauding donors to a private effort to build a wall along the Mexican border. He was arrested Thursday by U.S. postal police aboard a Chinese billionaire’s $28 million yacht off the coast of Connecticut.
An indictment by the Southern District of New York alleges Bannon and three others at the nonprofit We Build the Wall siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations into their own pockets to support their lavish lifestyles. Bannon had promoted the group as a volunteer organization. One of the biggest donors to the project was a 7-year-old boy, who set up a hot chocolate stand and raised as much as $28,000. Bannon pleaded not guilty Thursday and was released after posting $5 million bond.
At the White House, reporters asked Trump about the charges.
REPORTER: What’s your reaction to the indictment of your former campaign aide, Steve Bannon?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I haven’t been dealing with him at all. I know nothing about the project, other than I didn’t like — when I read about it, I didn’t like it. I said, “This is for government; this isn’t for private people.” And it sounded to me like showboating. And I think I let my opinion be very strongly stated at the time. I didn’t like it. It was showboating and maybe looking for funds. But you’ll have to see what happens. I think it’s a very sad thing for Mr. Bannon. I think it’s surprising.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on CBS Face the Nation Sunday, former FBI Director James Comey, who used to head the Southern District of New York, which filed the charges, said Bannon is in a, quote, “world of trouble.”
JAMES COMEY: It’s a very serious fraud case with a huge amount of money stolen from innocent victims, Americans who thought they were giving money to support the president’s wall on the Mexican border, and instead it was stolen. That will drive up the potential punishments for Mr. Bannon and his co-conspirators. And you know he’s in trouble, because the indictment lays it out in such detail, including excerpts from texts. If you’re Steve Bannon, you’re his lawyers, you’re reading this, saying, “I’m going down here.”
AMY GOODMAN: Facing charges along with Bannon is We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart, lost his legs in Iraq. The Postal Inspection Service said the case, quote, “should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist,” unquote.
Not charged is Fisher Industries CEO Tommy Fisher, who was contracted to build the three-mile stretch of wall for the group directly along the banks of the Rio Grande, near Mission, Texas, near the Mexico border, as a showcase project. Fisher went on to secure $1.7 billion in federal border wall contracts and claimed he was building the, quote, “Lamborghini” of walls. But an investigation by ProPublica last month shows the private wall project is already eroding and could be in danger of falling into the river. Their story prompted Trump to tweet on July 12th, quote, “I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad,” he said. This was around the same time of a dramatic showdown, when the Trump administration ousted Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney at the Southern District of New York, whose office went on to file these charges against Bannon.
Well, for more, we’re joined by two reporters with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune investigative unit who worked on the story. In one of their reports, We Build the Wall’s founder Brian Kolfage actually bragged about his ties to Trump. In Houston, we’re joined by Perla Trevizo, and in Austin, we’re joined by Lexi Churchill.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lexi, let’s begin with you. Explain what took place on Thursday, the significance of these charges against Bannon and three others.
LEXI CHURCHILL: Yeah, definitely. And thanks so much for having me.
So, as you said, the U.S. Southern District of New York is charging these four men, who have been involved with the group to varying degrees, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, as well as money laundering. And as you stated, the indictment is very in-depth about, you know, the manner in which that they have used an unnamed nonprofit to wire a portion of the money that this group raised last year, through public funds and public donors, to use as their own personal means. And that, in part, went to a boat called the Warfighter, that has been spread widely and shared widely on the CEO Brian Kolfage’s Instagram.
And, you know, this is really just — it’s interesting, because we started our reporting with the main question as to answer: Where has this money been going? And it doesn’t answer that as a whole, but it does give us some insight into where part of this has been going. And, you know, the little that we know about it is that this group initially raised around $25 million, and they had used around $6 million to $8 million on the first project that they did, and only about 5% of a $42 million project that was their second one, that we have reported on, as you stated earlier. So, that just doesn’t quite add up to the $25 million. And this indictment has given us some insight into where some of that money has gone, that we have not been able to find out.
AMY GOODMAN: The timing of this is just unbelievable. I mean, you have Barr pushing out Geoffrey Berman. He did not expect the pushback from Berman, not then being able to put in the guy he wanted to as the U.S. attorney. And then immediately you have Trump saying something about this project, that he doesn’t support it. This is at the time they couldn’t shape the prosecutor’s office in the way they wanted to, and clearly this prosecution was moving ahead — not clear if Barr was trying to stop this prosecution — so that when Bannon was arrested, Trump said, “You can look at my comments weeks ago. I was against this project.” But it was only when they weren’t able to put the people in they wanted to in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
LEXI CHURCHILL: Yeah. And as you mentioned, the president had tweeted about a month ago, after our initial reporting on the state of how this actual project is standing up, which is not great, that he did not like this project, he did not support it. And he furthered those comments, trying to distance himself on Thursday, when asked about it.
But, you know, there is a clear connection between the president and this group. Of course, Steve Bannon, his former campaign adviser and a White House adviser for some period of time, there’s no severaging that relationship. He’s also been involved with former Secretary of State Kris Kobach of Kansas for several years, and he served as the group’s general counsel, actually, and another outspoken advocate.
We have done some reporting that has also connected the president to members of the group itself, including the CEO, Brian Kolfage, who last year in an interview said that they had a direct connection to the president, through Kris Kobach and others, and that he approved of what they were doing, and they supported it. Amanda Shea, the company CEO — CFO, sorry, also posted a photo with Trump last year, saying that she was able to meet with him and speak extensively about the project and that he had even told her that they should bid for the whole wall.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have this very important point that Kris Kobach — yes, the former Kansas secretary of state, fierce anti-immigrant activist, prominent Trump supporter — serving as the adviser, as you said, to We Build the Wall, who said, “I talked with the president, and the We Build the Wall effort came up,” Kobach told The New York Times. “The president said, 'The project has my blessing, and you can tell the media that.'” So, Trump is singing a very different tune right now.
Now, while the media covered this — you know, this is extremely significant, Bannon being arrested — I wanted to turn to Perla Trevizo, who is on the ground there in Texas, because what the media didn’t cover as much is what this wall is. What did get built? What happened to it, Perla?
PERLA TREVIZO: Yeah, so, again, thank you for having us.
So, very little had been built. They had built roughly half a mile, west of El Paso and in New Mexico last year. That was on private land. And then, that was fully — as Lexi said, that was fully funded by We Build the Wall, which was up to $8 million, according to reports. And then, the further west in — east in Texas, they built roughly three miles along the river, which is the portion of the private wall that we’ve been focusing on. And that project was mostly funded by Fisher, which is the CEO that you mentioned previously, with support from We Build the Wall.
And so, initially, We Build the Wall touted that as their second project, after our story, and Mr. Trump tweeted that he disagreed with the project. He initially tried to distance himself from the project, saying that was not their wall, it was Fisher’s project, they just had — they had just donated to it. And then, ultimately, they went back and did say that, you know, it was actually fake media reports, and everything was fine, and went back to kind of owning that project or their contribution or support to that project.
AMY GOODMAN: And Fisher is, Perla?
PERLA TREVIZO: So, Tommy Fisher is the CEO of Fisher Industries and a lot of subsidiaries. He’s a builder who, for a while, was trying to get border wall contracts, and he was not getting anywhere. And then he started appearing on conservative media outlets and kind of, you know, trying to get to the president, they say. And so he partnered with We Build a Wall to build the Sunland Park, New Mexico, segment and then the one in Texas. And they say that they wanted to show the government how the private industry could build the border wall much better than the government. You know, while the government had not been able to build right along the river, they would show them how it could be done much cheaper and faster. And so, critics say that he used those projects as kind of a showcase project to then tout to the administration and get the government contracts that you mentioned earlier. Since our stories, he’s now gotten a couple more, so now it’s closer to $2 billion in federal contracts for border wall fencing, most of that in Arizona.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, how much Fisher’s gotten?
PERLA TREVIZO: Now it’s about $2 billion.
AMY GOODMAN: Two billion?
PERLA TREVIZO: Two billion. His company has also been awarded the largest contract ever for a border wall, which was $1.28 billion, almost $1.3 billion. And two of them, including that one that I just mentioned, have been awarded while an IG investigation or audit is ongoing. So, after he got the first border wall contract for $400 million, Congressman Bennie Thompson called for a DOD audit of that contract to ensure that there had not been undue influence or improper influence from the Trump administration. And that’s still ongoing.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the wall part that was built and the environmental regulations that were gotten around, and what this means in the area.
PERLA TREVIZO: Yeah, so, especially the one in South Texas, it’s a very tricky area, even as Mr. Trump said. So, it’s very close to the river. And there is a reason why there’s not a lot of border wall building going on there. Usually the government builds further inland on a levee, which has caused its own problems, because you end up dissecting properties, farmland, even cemeteries. And so, this segment of the three miles of the wall is built very, very close to the river, which experts have told us you’re always going to have a problem with erosion.
And soon after Mr. Fisher completed his roughly three miles, you started seeing little gullies and gashes in different areas of the fence. And, you know, to be clear, Mr. Fisher and his attorney have both dismissed those concerns, said that there’s normal part of erosion after you have a project like that, and that they’ll continue to fix it and be responsible for it. But what we saw after Hannah is that those gullies and gashes became huge cracks. In some instances, it was waist deep. You know, I describe in the story. You kind of see like deep veins going into the river. And what our experts, hydrologists and engineers, tell us is that the problem is that you can — it can become — destabilize the foundation of the fence. And it’s not that it might fall tomorrow, but if this continues, because of the sand and because of the kind of loamy sand under — you know, on the bank, that you could have segments of it topple into the river, which can cause a lot of problems.
And I’ll just add, as well, that area is controlled by a binational commission, boundary commission, because you want to make sure that whatever you do on either side of the U.S. or Mexico border is not going to impact the other side. So, in this case, they have found that at least one segment of the three-mile fence can deflect too much water onto the Mexican side when there’s flooding. And so, that’s also currently being litigated.
AMY GOODMAN: I also want to talk about other people involved with this, whether or not they’re indicted. Last year, Al Jazeera English host Mehdi Hasan interviewed Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater. Prince defended his involvement in the We Build the Wall fundraising project. This is Hasan questioning Erik Prince.
MEHDI HASAN: You are part of a group of high-profile Trump supporters, including Steve Bannon, Sheriff David Clarke and others, who are planning on raising private money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. You even have a GoFundMe page. What I don’t get, though, is, I’m pretty sure I heard Donald Trump say that Mexico would be paying for the wall.
ERIK PRINCE: Don’t discount Mexico actually paying for the wall.
MEHDI HASAN: I think most of us have, but yes?
ERIK PRINCE: The last chapter is not written on that, mark my words.
MEHDI HASAN: So, Mexico will pay for the wall. So, then, why are you fundraising?
ERIK PRINCE: Look, there’s — there —
MEHDI HASAN: You can’t have it both ways: “Mexico will pay for the wall, but I’m going to raise money.”
ERIK PRINCE: There —
MEHDI HASAN: Which one?
ERIK PRINCE: Because people are frustrated. They’re sick of not having —
MEHDI HASAN: They’re frustrated that the president can’t get Mexico to pay for the wall, two years into his presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mehdi Hasan questioning Erik Prince. On a 2019 live-streaming fundraiser, Steve Bannon, who was indicted, joked Brian Kolfage was embezzling the wall money.
ANNOUNCER: Stephen K. Bannon and Brian Kolfage.
STEPHEN BANNON: Welcome back. This is Stephen K. Bannon. We’re off the coast of Saint-Tropez in southern France in the Mediterranean. We’re on the million-dollar yacht of Brian Kolfage. And Brian Kolfage, he took all that money from Build the Wall. No, we’re actually in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have Brian Kolfage and Steve Bannon, both indicted. Let’s end with Lexi Churchill. The significance of what they are saying, and, before that, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater?
LEXI CHURCHILL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it is very startling to joke about something like that, that is now true and that they’re now facing charges for.
And I guess what I’d like to end on is, you know, this has been the outstanding question, and because of how the group is structured as a nonprofit corporation, you know, we have not had a lot of these answers about where the money is going and what it has been used for so far. And when we reached out to Brian Kolfage about this, he said that we would need to wait for those answers to come in, once the group filed their annual report, a 990 or version of it. So, we are eagerly awaiting that to see what further information we’ll be able to learn.
AMY GOODMAN: So, finally, what happens to this wall that was already built, now that these men have been indicted? And you’ve got Fisher Industries, again, Tommy Fisher, getting something like $2 billion to build the wall. Fisher Industries, the two other brothers, David and Michael, one was put in prison for child pornography; the other went to jail for environmental and workplace violations, among other things, and not paying taxes, etc.?
LEXI CHURCHILL: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good question. And it’s worth noting that Fisher Industries does have a history of violations, like the ones you mentioned, a lot — EPA environmental violation regulations, as well as MSHA workplace safety regulations. And, you know, I think the biggest thing is that this investigation is still ongoing into the initial contract they received for $400 million from the federal government, and we’re waiting to see what the results of that were, as well, if there was any undue influences, Perla mentioned earlier.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, as you will, we will continue to follow this, of course. We want to thank Lexi Churchill and Perla Trevizo, the reporters with the ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative unit. And we’ll link to your pieces, “Nonprofit that financed a private border wall is now the focus of a corruption case.”
Next, we look at President Trump’s embrace of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, ahead of today’s Republican National Convention. While the FBI sees QAnon as a domestic terrorist threat, Trump has taken a different approach. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Justin Townes Earle. It was announced last night that Justin Townes Earle has passed away at the age of 38. He’s the son of the great folksinger Steve Earle.