How Bannon’s Wall Group Used Trump Ties and Social Media to Raise Millions

Since the arrest of his former senior political adviser Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump has tried to distance himself from the nonprofit group that raised more than $25 million for the supposed purpose of building a wall along the border with Mexico.

But social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are living documentation of just how hard the backers of the group, We Build the Wall, worked to demonstrate that they not only were close to Mr. Trump and his family, but had been endorsed by them.

This alliance with Mr. Trump’s family and other political actors in his circle was an essential part of their fund-raising drive, and it illustrates how social media has become such an essential tool for entrepreneurs seeking to rapidly raise money — even if it means violating federal law.

After the arrest of Mr. Bannon and three other men on Thursday in what prosecutors say was a scheme to defraud donors and divert money for personal use, Mr. Trump suggested he had not supported the private wall-building effort.

“I didn’t like that project,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “I thought that was a project that was being done for showboating reasons.”

But donors could be forgiven for thinking he did. For the We Build the Wall team — led by Mr. Bannon, along with Brian Kolfage, an Air Force veteran and amputee, and Timothy and Amanda Shea of Arizona — anytime they were close to Mr. Trump was an opportunity to push for new donations, providing at least the appearance that Mr. Trump had embraced the campaign. And the president and those around him appeared to do little to discourage the idea.

That included a fund-raising event Ms. Shea attended in the Hamptons last summer, which she turned into an opportunity to push the wall effort, including a message to her followers suggesting that she had raised the topic with Mr. Trump and that he had endorsed the campaign.

The New York Times downloaded and reposted these Instagram and Twitter postings because since the arrests, they have started to disappear.

Another posting by Ms. Shea gives a hint of how she gained access to Mr. Trump: It appears to have been a fund-raising event.

This presumably short encounter with Mr. Trump became a key marketing opportunity for the We Build the Wall social media team, which stated again and again that Mr. Trump had endorsed their effort, even though Mr. Trump himself had not made any public statements to date that he supported the private fund-raising push. (After the private wall began experiencing apparent erosion problems this summer, Mr. Trump tweeted that he opposed the effort.)

Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and a Trump ally, had told The Times in January 2019 that the president had given the wall campaign his “blessing.”

“I talked with the president, and the We Build the Wall effort came up,” Mr. Kobach said at the time. “The president said, ‘The project has my blessing, and you can tell the media that.’”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment at the time.

A critical moment in the fund-raising push came in July 2019, with a visit by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, to the site where the group built its first small section of private wall, in Sunland Park, N.M. Every part of the visit was recorded and then shared on social media — via multiple accounts and multiple personalities affiliated with the effort.

The social media messaging included links to the GoFundMe account that the organizers were using to raise money — making it explicit that this visit was seen as a way to raise new money for their effort, which they also called “The Trump Wall.”

The We Build the Wall organizers ran a livestream of Mr. Trump’s remarks and then sent out the recording over YouTube to try to make sure it was widely seen, promoting the YouTube video again via their social media accounts.

Other conservative heroes and Trump supporters made visits to the construction site, with every stopover by a celebrity or elected official another fund-raising opportunity. These included Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, and David Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager. Joining them was Mr. Kobach, who ran unsuccessfully this year for the United States Senate. He is a member of the We Build the Wall board and its general counsel.

Mr. Kolfage had also pinned a tweet of a video of Gloria Chavez, a Border Patrol sector chief, standing alongside Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, complimenting the private border wall. Mr. Wolf said at the same news briefing that he welcomed “all that want to be part of the solution.” He also visited part of the private wall in New Mexico. Mr. Wolf later denied that he had endorsed the project. But the organization still issued a news release celebrating “the endorsement” — and asking once again for more donations.

The ultimate sign for many Trump allies that a cause has been endorsed by the Trump family is an official visit to Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private club in Florida.

Mr. Kolfage hit that bell in February 2019, a visit that included a photograph with Eric Trump, the president’s middle son, which again quickly became an opportunity to link the We Build the Wall fund-raising push to Mr. Trump and his family. Other We Build the Wall executives visited the Trump International Hotel in Washington and Chicago, according to other social media postings.

We Build the Wall officials also sought to associate themselves with other high-profile conservatives, including the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus. In this photo are Ms. Shea and Mr. Kolfage, along with Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, now Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, among others.

The ability to monetize a link to Mr. Trump has extended beyond the We Build the Wall effort, the social media accounts of executives from the group show. The Sheas recently started a Trump-inspired energy drink they call Winning Energy. Mr. Trump’s image is printed on the can, and their social media promotions frequently cite Mr. Trump.

To help promote their product, they have joined the Trump re-election campaign, serving as what the company called the “official sponsor” of the so-called Trump boat parade in Florida in July. Mr. Kolfage is listed as the point of contact for the event.

The social media promotion made it clear that they were there to help sell their energy drink, which they boast is made of 12 ounces of liberal tears.

The indictment unsealed by the Justice Department — which filed criminal charges against Mr. Bannon, Mr. Shea, Mr. Kolfage and a fourth person involved in the group, Andrew Badolato, a longtime business associate of Mr. Bannon’s — said the money that these four illegally took from the nonprofit went to personal expenses, such as travel, hotels and credit card debts. The organization’s executives had promised donors that they “personally not take a penny of compensation from these donations,” the indictment said.

Mr. Kolfage, the indictment said, was particularly aggressive in his spending of donated dollars, using the funds for “home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury S.U.V., a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments” and other items.

The Justice Department said the purchases included a 2018 Land Rover Range Rover and a 2019 Jupiter Marine boat named Warfighter. That boat, according to the social media accounts, showed up at the Trump boat parade in July, flying a Trump-Pence flag.

“Be a winner,” the posting by Mr. Kolfage said.

Some in the group have taken to social media in recent days to defend their actions, and to suggest that the Justice Department fabricated the charges, with Mr. Kolfage asserting that he had purchased the Warfighter before he helped found the group. He also continued to push his links to the president on his Facebook page, even adopting a favorite term of Mr. Trump’s for the case against him: “The witch hunt.”

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