President Trump on Thursday said he feels “very badly” that his former adviser Steve Bannon was arrested and indicted in connection with an online fundraising campaign that allegedly defrauded donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars, while calling the project “inappropriate.”
The president, during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, told reporters that he hasn’t dealt with Bannon, who worked on his 2016 campaign as CEO and at the White House as a senior adviser, in a "very long period of time."
"I feel very badly. I haven't been dealing with him for a very long period of time," Trump told reporters. "I haven't been dealing with him at all."
The president said he didn’t “know anything about the project at all” but also said he “didn’t like” it.
“I thought it was being done for showboating reasons,” Trump said.
Bannon and co-defendant Brian Kolfage told the public that they were a "volunteer organization" and that 100% of the money raised would go toward their stated goal, which was to raise money for the federal government to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Those representations were false," the indictment said. Prosecutors claim that Kolfage, Bannon, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea took money for themselves as the campaign raised upward of $25 million. The indictment alleges that Bannon received more than $1 million through a nonprofit that he then used for personal expenses and to pay Kolfage.
Prosecutors say Bannon and the others used the nonprofit and a shell company to hide the payments to Kolfage “by using fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements” as well as other means of keeping the payments quiet. The indictment stated that in order to raise funds, Kolfage and Bannon “repeatedly and falsely” told the public that Kolfage would “not take a penny” in compensation.
According to prosecutors, Kolfage instructed payments to be made out to his spouse, and this was reflected in a 1099 form the nonprofit issued, saying the payment was for “media.”
The campaign's website said all of the money raised would go to the government for building the wall and that if they did not meet their fundraising target, they would "refund every single penny," according to the indictment.
Regarding the efforts to fund the border wall with private funds, the president said Thursday that it was something he “very much thought was inappropriate to be doing.”
Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Thursday also sought to distance Trump from Bannon and the project, doubling down on the fact that Trump has no involvement in the project.
“As everyone knows, President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat, and perhaps raise funds,” McEnany said.
McEnany went on to cite Trump’s past public remarks about funding the wall with private funds.
The president, last month, said on Twitter that he "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. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles.”
McEnany added that the president “has always felt the Wall must be a government project and that it is far too big and complex to be handled privately.”
“The Trump Administration has already built over 300 miles of Border Wall, thanks to the great work of our Army Corps of Engineers, and will have almost 500 miles completed by the end of the year,” McEnany said, adding that “our southern border is more secure than it has ever been.”
She added: “President Trump has not been involved with Steve Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the Administration, and he does not know the people involved with this project.”
The Justice Department announced the charges Thursday.
Bannon and the other defendants were each charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Fox News' Kellianne Jones, Ronn Blitzer and Marta Dhanis contributed to this report.