A photo of Donald Trump meeting with people behind the We Build The Wall fundraising campaign has emerged after the group’s leader Brian Kolfage and the president’s former aide Steve Bannon were accused of ripping off donors.
The photo shows Trump smiling alongside Amanda Shea, We Build The Wall’s chief financial officer, and five other people in Bridgehampton, New York, in August 2019.
Shea posted the photo on Instagram and gushed about how much interest the president had shown in her group’s efforts to use crowd funding to build barriers along the US-Mexico border.
The image resurfaced on Thursday as Trump sought to distance himself from We Build The Wall following the arrests of Bannon, Kolfage and two associates who prosecutors say defrauding hundreds of thousands of people out of $25million donated to the campaign.
One of the other associates was Timothy Shea, the husband of Amanda Shea, who was accused of helping orchestrate the fraud by setting up shell corporations to funnel $350,000 in donations to Kolfage.
Shea captioned her photo: ‘A summer of winning came to a high note in the Hamptons.
‘I had the absolute pleasure and honor of spending time with President Trump who had a lot of questions about the wall We The People built through We Build The Wall.
‘He was impressed, but more importantly, incredibly personable and easy to talk to. I forgot that I was speaking with one of the most powerful men in the world.’
The photo adds to speculation over how much Trump may have known about what was going on within the group.
The president has insisted that he never knew anything about the project – despite its ties to his son Donald Trump Jr, his 2016 campaign manager Bannon and other members of his inner circle.
‘I don’t like that project,’ he told reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday. ‘I thought it was being done for showboating reasons. It was something I very much thought was inappropriate to be doing.’
He also tried to distance himself from Bannon, saying: ‘I feel very badly. I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time.
‘I haven’t been dealing with him at all. It’s a very sad thing by Mr Bannon. He was involved in our campaign and for a small part of our administration.’
In fact Bannon was the campaign CEO for its last 88 days after the ousting of Paul Manafort – who is now a convicted felon himself – and then was Trump’s ‘Chief Strategist,’ with a West Wing office close to the Oval Office.
Just weeks ago, Trump tweeted out his dissatisfaction with the wall project after the group built a section of wall just 35 feet from the Rio Grande river on the US-Mexico border, leading to concerns about erosion and flooding.
‘I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,’ Trump tweeted.
‘It was only done to make me look bad, and [perhaps] it now doesn’t.’
Kolfage launched We Build The Wall in 2018 by setting up a GoFundMe campaign that pledged to build barriers along the border in Texas and New Mexico, some of which have already been erected.
The online appeal for funds included a picture of President Trump and a stamp that said ‘Trump Approved’.
But prosecutors say it was a scam, as donors’ cash was also funneled to Bannon and Kolfage.
Bannon, who helped steer Trump’s campaign then joined him in the White House in 2017 as chief strategist only to be forced out, is accused of getting $1million in the alleged scheme and spending hundreds of thousands of that on ‘expenses’.
Kolfage is also accused of fraudulently pocketing funds. He claimed he did not get a cent from the scheme but instead got $100,000 up front and $20,000 a month salary, prosecutors allege, living a lavish lifestyle at Miramar Beach in the Florida panhandle.
The Iraq war veteran, who had both legs amputated and lost his right arm in a rocket attack, was arrested at his home in Florida and later released.
Meanwhile Bannon was arrested on a yacht owned by exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui off the coast of Connecticut.
Both men are facing one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Bannon pleaded not guilty on Thursday afternoon and was released on $5million bail.
Meanwhile Don Jr is now looking to diminish his ties to We Build The Wall – which he personally donated to.
The president’s son praised the group and Kolfage at a We Build The Wall event in July 2019 that was captured on newly-unearthed video.
‘This is what capitalism is all about. This is private enterprise at its finest,’ Don Jr says as he holds hands with Kolfage.
‘Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else. What you guys are doing is amazing.’
Another image tying Don Jr to the group also resurfaced on Thursday, showing the president’s son holding a customized gun gifted to him by We Build The Wall.
‘Our special gift to Donald Trump Jr for taking the time to visit the border wall we built. A custom We Build The Wall Springfield 1911,’ the group wrote in a Facebook post on July 30, 2019.
The photo shows Don Jr standing alongside his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle and We Build The Wall advisory board members Mary Ann Mendoza and Steve Ronnebeck on a private plane after they stopped by a section of the wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
Don Jr has since defended his previous support of the group and claimed he may have been ‘deceived’.
‘Don gave one speech at a single We Build The Wall event over a year ago with a group of angel moms and besides that, has no involvement with their organization,’ his spokeswoman Amanda Miller said.
‘He never gave them permission to use him as a testimonial on their website and was unaware they included him as one until today’s media reports about it.
‘His previous praise of the group was based on what he was led to believe about their supposed intention to help build the wall on our southern border and if he and others were deceived, the group deserves to be held accountable for their actions.’
A Facebook page run by Kolfage indicates that his links to Don Jr ran deeper than the president’s son was letting on.
The page spent $185,000 on ads, including some asking for wall-building donations, according to Insider.
In one ad posted in December, Kolfage promised a ‘FREE Donald Trump Jr Autographed Book with donation to We Build The Wall Inc! DO NOT MISS OUT!’