The We Build the Wall project was launched in late 2018 with a goal that appealed to many rank-and-file Republicans: Its organizers vowed to raise private funds to build barriers along the U.S./Mexico border. It wasn’t long, however, before the project ran into serious structural issues, and Donald Trump took steps to distance himself from the initiative.
But the biggest problem behind We Build the Wall was its finances.
To be sure, the project’s leaders raised plenty of money. In fact, with high-profile players such as Steve Bannon helping lead the effort, We Build the Wall raised $25 million. Bannon told the public that the group behind the venture would function as “a volunteer organization,” but prosecutors found evidence that the leaders defrauded donors, effectively pocketing money, and two of Bannon’s former partners pleaded guilty in April.
The Republican operative, however, received a get-out-of-jail-free card: With just hours remaining in his presidency, Trump issued a presidential pardon for Bannon, derailing federal prosecutors’ plans.
That did not, however, prevent state prosecution. NBC News reported this morning:
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon arrived in court in New York on Thursday to face fresh charges related to a charity that was supposed to use private funds to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall…. Bannon was hit with charges related to the same scheme by federal prosecutors in August 2020. He pleaded not guilty and was later pardoned by then-President Donald Trump.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and New York Attorney General Letitia James will hold a news conference this afternoon to discuss the charges. As we discussed yesterday, Bannon appears likely to plead not guilty.
As the process moves forward, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the larger context — because one of the underappreciated staples of Republican politics in recent years is the frequency with which powerful GOP figures have been accused of trying to separate rank-and-file Republican voters from their money.
Indeed, the We Build The Wall organizers are hardly the first to try to fleece their own ostensible allies. It was nearly a decade ago when MSNBC’s Chris Hayes wrote, “Much of movement conservatism is a con and the base are the marks.”
The relevance of the quote lingers for a reason.
Some of this has unfolded just outside of the formal party. The National Rifle Association, for example, has been accused of corruption and greed, using donors’ money to finance extravagant lifestyles.
What’s more, the pattern isn’t altogether new. As regular readers know, many prominent Republican voices from years past — including Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee — have created lucrative mailing lists used for highly dubious purposes. Similarly, the rise of the Tea Party in the Obama era led to the creation of “scam PACs“ that targeted conservative donors, but existed “mostly to pad the pockets” of the consultants who ran them.
But in recent years, the problem has grown considerably worse. This past weekend, for example, The New York Times ran a devastating report on the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s fundraising under Sen. Rick Scott’s leadership. It included previously unreported allegations about Republicans using “exploitative” tactics.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has faced related allegations.
Trump’s record, meanwhile, is unusually ugly. He ran a fraudulent charitable foundation and created a fraudulent “university” that was designed to do little more than rip off its “students.” As Election Day 2020 approached, the Republican relied on brazenly underhanded tactics that were so severe that banks and credit card companies were inundated “with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars.”
After his defeat, Team Trump raised money for an “Election Defense Fund” that did not exist, but which raised millions of dollars from unsuspecting Republican donors. It was part of a larger pattern of the former president’s relentlessly deceptive appeals.
We Build The Wall, in other words, has plenty of company.
In recent years, many have probably heard the expression about Republicans “fearing their base.” But Republicans’ fundraising tactics point to something more pernicious: Many of the party’s most prominent figures think their base is made up of suckers to be exploited.