As he commiserated with fellow activist Tiffiny Ruegner in December 2018, Kolfage broached an idea.
“He said, ‘Hey, Tiffiny, what if we do a GoFundMe to help President Trump build the border wall?’ ” Ruegner recalled in an interview. “I said, ‘That would be interesting, I think we might get some supporters, but I don’t think you’re going to raise a lot of money.’ ”
Kolfage’s brainchild, dubbed “We Build the Wall,” would generate more than $17 million in just the first week and would eventually attract some of Trump’s highest-profile supporters.
Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former campaign strategist — whom Ruegner said she had put in touch with Kolfage a month or two earlier — began running the day-to-day operations. Former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, an immigration hard-liner with close ties to the administration, said Trump had given the project his blessing in a phone call. The president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., touted the effort at a symposium near a section of wall the group paid to have built.
Last week, though, Bannon, Kolfage and two others — venture capitalist Andrew Badolato and businessman Timothy Shea — were charged in a federal conspiracy case, in which prosecutors in Manhattan alleged they falsely claimed they were receiving no pay from the effort as they secretly spent hundreds of thousands of donor dollars on travel, home renovations and personal credit card debt.
Bannon and Kolfage have defended themselves, asserting that the indictment against them is a politically motivated effort to undermine supporters of the president and one of his signature campaign promises. Others involved in We Build the Wall say they were unaware of some of the conduct that investigators claim to have uncovered and would wait to learn more.
“I can’t imagine that Steve Bannon, whom I know well, is either that careless or that dumb,” said former congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who served on the advisory board of We Build the Wall. “I saw in the press that Bannon will be pleading not guilty, and I will wait for more information or evidence before making any further comment.”
Almost from the start, We Build the Wall was dogged by controversy. In early 2019, just after the campaign had launched, BuzzFeed News reported on allegations that funds Kolfage raised in a previous campaign for veterans at military hospitals had not actually gone to the medical centers, and that he had pushed to sensationalize right-wing content at a news website he ran.
In the wall funding effort, Ruegner, an organizer for the tea party movement and a writer, said the group had initially hoped to give the donations they raised to the government but were told the government could not promise the funds would be used for a border barrier.
GoFundMe suspended Kolfage’s campaign after it had raised more than $20 million, warning Kolfage that he had to identify a legitimate nonprofit to which the funds would be transferred, according to the indictment against him. Bannon and Badolato, a business partner, ultimately created such a nonprofit, and the group changed its direction — deciding donor funds would be used on private construction of a wall, rather than given to the government, according to the indictment.
But to get GoFundMe to release the donations, they had to agree that Kolfage would “personally not take a penny of compensation,” and that donors would have to reaffirm they wanted their donation to go to We Build the Wall, according to the indictment.
Ruegner said one of her jobs was to call and email donors, convincing them to re-opt in. She said she was paid for her work but declined to say how much. She has not been accused of any wrongdoing and said she has had no contact with law enforcement. The group ultimately only lost about 10 percent of its contributions, Ruegner said.
Federal prosecutors alleged that the group persuaded donors to stay on by promising Kolfage would take no compensation. Ruegner, who said she left the organization in October 2019 and did not handle finances, insisted that in the script she read to donors, they promised only that Kolfage would not be paid “until after the first mile is built” and made no representations about others.
The group had high-profile conservative support. In addition to Kobach, Bannon and Tancredo, it counted among its advisory board members Erik Prince, a conservative activist and defense contractor close to Bannon; former Milwaukee County sheriff David Alexander Clarke Jr.; and former Major League Baseball star Curt Schilling. A member of the group tweeted last summer that she had personally met with Trump and answered specific questions about the project, and Yahoo News reported that acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf visited one of the group’s building sites.
“We all kind of knew each other from conservative stuff that we were doing,” Ruegner said. “How it grew, it was just very organic and very fast.”
Progress on the wall, though, was another matter. In the early months of 2019, some who said they were donors began complaining on We Build the Wall’s Facebook page and to the Daily Beast about the lack of construction. Kobach had told the New York Times in January 2019 — when he declared the effort had Trump’s blessing — that they would hopefully be breaking ground “within weeks,” but as of mid-May, they had not.
According to the We Build the Wall website, the group completed its first small section near Sunland Park, N.M., in June 2019. The next month, Trump Jr. made a surprise visit to a symposium the group held and praised the organization as “private enterprise at its finest.”
“Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else,” he added, in comments the group highlighted on its website.
The way prosecutors tell it, though, Kolfage, Bannon, Badolato and Shea — a vocal supporter of Trump online — were privately scheming to pocket hundreds of thousands for themselves and keep the arrangement secret using fake invoices and sham vendor arrangements.
It is unclear how federal authorities first became interested in the group, but the investigation was underway by October — when the men were tipped to its possible existence from a financial institution, according to the indictment. That investigation, led by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and federal prosecutors in Manhattan, culminated last week, when authorities took all four into custody.
Bannon was pulled off a 150-foot yacht called the Lady May owned by a friend and business associate, Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui — a vocal online critic of the Chinese government who was once close with that country’s intelligence service but is now wanted by authorities in Beijing on charges of fraud, blackmail and bribery.
Trump had already seemed to sour slightly on the group. After ProPublica reported in July that its wall was in danger of falling into the Rio Grande, the president tweeted, “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, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work.”
After Bannon’s arrest, Trump reiterated that he did not support the privately constructed wall.
“I don’t like that project,” Trump said. “I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.”
Ruegner, who met Trump in 2014 and has a picture with him on her Facebook page, said she was unbothered by the president’s comments.
“He doesn’t know us personally. He only knows the information that’s being given to him. That information can change depending on who’s giving it,” she said, noting that Donald Trump Jr. had visited the wall.
Bannon and Kolfage have portrayed themselves as being targeted for their support of Trump. In a series of Facebook posts about his arrest, Kolfage wrote, “The witch hunt is on! I’m not going to be bullied into being a political prisoner for my beliefs. I have fought hard for these freedoms and the SDNY is on [an] all out assault to take down every Trump insider from the 2016 election, that means Bannon.”
SDNY refers to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which brought the case.
Bannon, emerging from the courthouse after an initial hearing in which he pleaded not guilty, similarly said, “This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall.”
Ruegner said she remains proud of the work the group did. She said the government told the group it could cost as much as $25 million to build just one mile of barrier; We Build the Wall, she said, built at least 3½ miles for less than that. She said she did not mind Kolfage, in particular, taking a salary, given how much work he did.
“This organization 100 percent did what they said they were going to do with the money,” Ruegner said.
Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have continued to investigate. Just as authorities moved to arrest Bannon, two others who worked with We Build the Wall — Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence — said in a statement that “heavily armed federal law enforcement officers” executed search warrants on their cellphones and served them with subpoenas to appear before a grand jury in New York.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.