Sunday, August 23, 2020

‘Instant clout’: How Mar-a-Lago helped Bannon and his team promote ‘We Build The Wall’ BY SARAH BLASKEY AND NICHOLAS NEHAMAS AUGUST 21, 2020 07:11 PM , ‘Instant clout’: How Mar-a-Lago helped Bannon and his team promote ‘We Build The Wall’ BY SARAH BLASKEY AND NICHOLAS NEHAMAS AUGUST 21, 2020 07:11 PM , UPDATED AUGUST 22, 2020 01:48 PM Loaded: 47.35% PlaySkip Back Skip Forward Unmute Captions Current Time 0:00 / Duration 0:38Fullscreen Brian Kolfage honored at Mar-a-Lago SHARE US Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage appeared at the Trumpettes' 2019 gala, "Country Comes to Mar-a-Lago," and boosted the visibility of his charity "We Build the Wall." Read more here: BY SHALOMSHOWUP × Loaded: 2.38% PauseSkip Back Skip Forward Unmute Captions Current Time 0:00 / Duration 0:38Fullscreen US Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage appeared at the Trumpettes' 2019 gala, "Country Comes to Mar-a-Lago," and boosted the visibility of his charity "We Build the Wall." BY SHALOMSHOW These days, photos from President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club are a currency — one with ever increasing value. Veteran Brian Kolfage, who was charged Thursday with conspiracy to commit money laundering and wire fraud, used Mar-a-Lago’s brand in 2019 to bolster the legitimacy of We Build The Wall, a GoFundMe page that ultimately crowdsourced more than $25 million to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. At a February 2019 Mar-a-Lago fundraiser for a Trump fan club called the Trumpettes, Kolfage was a guest of honor, receiving the group’s “American Hero” award and snapping a photo with the president’s son, Eric. That picture was then reposted on an Instagram page for We Build The Wall — with a caption that said nothing about the Trumpettes but did tag Eric Trump prominently. “Our founder of the major #WeBuildTheWall movement to privately fund the long-promised border wall, Brian Kolfage, was recognized this weekend for this incredible effort with the American Patriot Award at Mar-a-Lago,” the post said, mislabeling the honor. Mar-a-Lago is not just a club — it’s a way for ambitious self-promoters to put the Trump imprimatur on their businesses, charities and personal brands. While Trump critics have mostly focused on the potential for corruption and influence peddling, members say it does not guarantee meaningful access to the president. The bigger appeal, they say, is the potential for people to make money by using appearances at the club as a way to demonstrate their closeness to Trump — real or puffed up. News alerts in your inbox “It’s an opportunity if you have a fringe charity and you want to get some credibility,” said Mar-a-Lago member Jeff Greene, who lost a Democratic primary for Florida governor in 2018. “Mar-a-Lago gives you instant clout.” That credibility, however, evaporated on Thursday when Kolfage and his partner, former presidential adviser Stephen Bannon, as well as two other men, were indicted by federal prosecutors. Bannon pleaded not guilty. The others had not yet entered pleas as of Friday afternoon. Bannon was arrested Thursday on an ultra-luxury yacht belonging to the Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, a high-profile Communist Party dissident who is a Mar-a-Lago member. Kolfage said in a 2019 Instagram post that Bannon had brought in the big donors for the fundraiser. A lawyer for Guo, who is wanted in China, did not respond when asked if he was among them. Federal prosecutors said Kolfage, Bannon, venture capitalist Andrew Badolato of Sarasota and Timothy Shea of Colorado conspired to steal money from the charity for personal expenses, despite promising to use the funds only for building a wall. In fact, it is alleged, some of the money went for plastic surgery, a high-end SUV and payments on a 40-foot recreational fishing vessel named “Warfighter” that made an appearance in a pro-Trump boat parade in Destin, Florida, on the Fourth of July. Local news has never been more important Subscribe for unlimited digital access to the news that matters to your community. #READLOCAL Kolfage has denied any wrongdoing and called the allegations against him a “witch hunt” in a Facebook post Thursday. ‘ROUTINE CORRUPTION’ Kolfage wasn’t Bannon’s only business partner to benefit from connections to Trump’s club. Guo, the Chinese billionaire, joined Mar-a-Lago in early 2015. The Wall Street Journal later reported that Trump dismissed a request from China’s government to extradite Guo — who is wanted there on charges of bribery and sexual assault, among others — after learning he was a member of Mar-a-Lago. (Guo says he is being persecuted in his homeland for his political beliefs.) He’s not alone in being accused of using Mar-a-Lago for personal benefit, said Robert Maguire, research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit that has sued the Trump administration over alleged constitutional violations relating to the president’s business holdings. Cindy Yang, a South Florida massage parlor entrepreneur, was able to parlay China’s fascination with Mar-a-Lago into a booming tourism business that brought wealthy Chinese visitors to galas at the club. And Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the Ukrainian-American businessman caught up in Trump’s impeachment, also boasted of dinners at Mar-a-Lago as they sought to drum up support for a medical marijuana business. Interactive image link WHO HAS GAINED ACCESS TO PRESIDENT TRUMP AND MAR-A-LAGO THROUGH CINDY YANG? At the end of the day, the profits all end up in the president’s pockets. Those who flock to Mar-a-Lago to buy memberships and hold parties, Maguire said, are “personally enriching Trump.” “It’s not the sort of routine corruption that we see in D.C. where if you’re a wealthy donor, your calls are answered. Mar-a-Lago is taking that a step further,” Maguire added. “It’s a level of corruption and influence that we haven’t seen in the modern presidency, and things were already pretty bad when it came to the role of money in politics.” Although Guo and Bannon have bonded over their anti-China stance, in civil court papers Guo has been accused of working as a double agent for China’s government. Guo said the spy allegation, raised in a contract dispute, was baseless and sued the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and the Miami Herald for reporting it. The lawsuit against the Herald was withdrawn. xxx FullSizeRender.jpeg A photo shows Guo Wengui walking his dog outside Mar-a-Lago in late December 2018 as anti-Trump protesters pulled up in a boat behind him. COURTESY CLAUDE TAYLOR In just the past few days, the Journal reported that federal and state authorities are investigating a media company tied to Guo and Bannon over potential securities law violations related to a $300 million private fundraising campaign. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York state attorney general’s office are involved in the probes, the Journal reported. The company, GTV Media, said it had followed the advice of its lawyers and would cooperate with any investigation. Judging from his social media presence, Kolfage went to Mar-a-Lago just once. Two months after starting We Build The Wall, he was invited to the club as a guest of honor for “Country Comes to Mar-a-Lago,” hosted by Trumpettes USA, a Florida nonprofit founded by Mar-a-Lago member Toni Holt Kramer. In between speeches by celebrities like actor Jon Voight, Fox News host “Judge Jeanine” Pirro and Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of the Brazilian president, the group celebrated Kolfage’s fundraising efforts and gave him the award for patriotism. From the stage, Kramer said Kolfage was “truly an American hero.” The crowd of people, whom Eric Trump had called his family’s “true friends,” gave Kolfage a standing ovation. “Had a great night at Mar-a-Lago, supporting We Build The Wall with the Trumpette’s group!” Kolfage wrote on Facebook after the Feb. 23, 2019, event. Kolfage’s flashy, in-your-face fundraising style instantly caught the eye of many in Palm Beach, where several similar Trump-branded fan clubs have sprung up around the president’s home. Some claim to campaign. Others just host parties. Most use variations of “Trump” or “45” in their advertising. And all of them see Mar-a-Lago as their crown jewel. Play VideoDuration -:-'Not your typical Trump book': Herald journalists talk about Mar-a-Lago, Epstein, espionage Miami Herald journalists discuss their findings from their new book "The Grifter's Club" about President Donald Trump and his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. BY MIAMI HERALD | PIERRE TAYLOR Kolfage fit right in. But he might not always have. Before Trump said that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white nationalist march at Charlottesville, Virginia, blue-chip charities like the American Red Cross dominated Mar-a-Lago’s social calendar. But post-Charlottesville, those groups largely left, being replaced by the minnows of South Florida’s charity world. Now the Trumpettes ball advertises itself as the club’s “event of the season.” Kramer said she has no regrets about honoring Kolfage, a triple amputee who lost his legs and right arm serving with the Air Force in Iraq. “I don’t even know what the charges are,” Kramer said, adding that she believes 99 percent of accusations against Trump and his supporters are cooked up. “I don’t believe what I hear on the news. I would have to investigate myself. I don’t have that time for that now. ... I don’t know many people who would give up their limbs to save this country and then have a smile on their face and do something positive. Do we not understand what people like that have sacrificed?” xxx Brian Kolfage, left, and his wife Ashley were photographed with Eric Trump at Mar-a-Lago during the 2019 Trumpettes’ gala. INSTAGRAM Profile Image of Sarah Blaskey SARAH BLASKEY 305-376-2811 Sarah Blaskey is the data specialist on the Miami Herald investigations team and co-author of “The Grifter’s Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency.” She holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and was a finalist for the 2020 Livingston Award for national reporting. Profile Image of Nicholas Nehamas NICHOLAS NEHAMAS 305-376-3745 Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” In 2020, he co-authored the book “The Grifter’s Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency.” He joined the Herald in 2014. Support my work with a digital subscription

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