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How a veterans idea to solicit donations for a border wall won over Trump supporters and produced conspiracy charges

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How a veterans idea to solicit donations for a border wall won over Trump supporters  and produced conspiracy charges

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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 dont think youre going to raise a lot of money.

Kolfages brainchild, dubbed We Build the Wall, would generate more than $17million in just the first week and would eventually attract some of Trumps highest-profile supporters.

Stephen K. Bannon, Trumps 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 presidents 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 cant 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 Kolfages campaign after it had raised more than $20million, 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 groups 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 Walls 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 Trumps 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 countrys 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 doesnt even work.

After Bannons arrest, Trump reiterated that he did not support the privately constructed wall.

I dont 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 presidents comments.

He doesnt know us personally. He only knows the information thats being given to him. That information can change depending on whos 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! Im 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. Attorneys 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 $25million to build just one mile of barrier; We Build the Wall, she said, built at least 3 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.

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories – KTVZ

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories - KTVZ

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are calling on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to create a new bipartisan committee focused on election integrity and schedule hearings to reassure Americans over a process President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to undermine.

There is growing anxiety among Democrats, and some Republicans, that Trump will not only continue to sow doubt over the legitimacy of the coming election but throw the subsequent count into chaos by declaring victory before all the votes can be tallied, including the millions that will arrive by mail.

In a letter to McConnell, Sanders and Schumer quote back the Kentucky senator’s own words, in which he attested to the reliability of mail-in voting by citing its successes in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, which have been using the system for years.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the validity of mail-in voting, promoted conspiracy theories questioning election security, called on supporters to act as unsanctioned “poll watchers,” and suggested that the absence of a clear result by the evening of November 3 would in some way cast doubt on the eventual outcome. Key allies in powerful positions, like Attorney General Bill Barr, have followed suit. Barr has persisted in puffing up a debunked claim that ballots received by mail would somehow strip the sender of their privacy — ignoring well-established safeguards.

By escalating the matter now, Sanders and Schumer are responding to growing concern, in partisan and nonpartisan spaces, that Americans are not adequately prepared for the potential of a longer-than-usual wait for results or Trump’s willingness to short-circuit the democratic process if he smells defeat.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress must come together to ensure that we have a free and fair election where every vote is cast and counted without intimidation,” Sanders told CNN, “where no one has to put his or her health in danger to cast a ballot, and where we have full confidence in the results.”

The proposed hearings would invite a cross-section of election officials from across the country to testify to the security and reliability of mail-in, early- and in-person voting — subjects on which Sanders and Schumer, again, referenced McConnell’s own words.

“Despite the clear security of our vote-by-mail system, some have continued to undermine it with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,” they wrote. “As you have correctly said, people ‘can vote early, you can vote on Election Day, or you can drop it in the mail,’ and that voters should ‘not worry about your vote not counting.’”

The minority leader and Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also want more detailed discussion about the fraught hours, or days, after the polls close and a real-time watch of the election horse race potentially swings from one candidate to another.

“We know a number of states may well be counting ballots for a period of time after Election Day, and that those votes may be determinative in this election,” the senators wrote to McConnell. “To avoid disinformation, conspiracy theories, and suspicion about results, we must understand the likely timeline for this process.”

The letter goes on to reference the recent war games-style preparations conducted by a group called the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan gathering of operatives and academics that made headlines when some of the outcomes of their exercises — including “both street-level violence and political impasse” — were reported on in late July.

“A bipartisan group of experts and officials have studied multiple scenarios where the outcome of the election was not immediately known. Some of these scenarios resulted in unrest and even violence,” Sanders and Schumer wrote, suggesting the Senate should elevate similar discussions and familiarize the public with the uncertainties ahead. “We would like to hear from the most knowledgeable people in the country as to how we can do everything possible to make sure that the election and the period afterward is secure and peaceful.”

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS supported Caputo, with a statement that called him a critical, integral part of the presidents coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no immediate statement from the White House.

Attempts to reach Caputo were unsuccessful.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called on Azar to fire Caputo, accusing the spokesman of trying to interfere with CDC reports to the medical and scientific community, as well as the public at large. And Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Azar himself to resign, citing interference with the CDC as one example of what he termed the administration’s failures.

Officials at CDC have privately complained of recent efforts by political appointees at main HHS to try to edit or press for changes in the agency’s weekly MMWR publications, a go-to resource for public health professionals.

MMWR articles are technical, but they reveal telling details. One published earlier this year noted that while Trump’s travel restrictions dramatically reduced travel from China in February, nothing was being done at that time to restrict travel from Italy and Europe, where the coronavirus was spreading widely and rapidly. Analysis of virus samples from hard-hit New York in March suggested it was introduced there from Europe and other parts of the U.S., the CDC article reported.

Caputo is an unswerving Trump loyalist. His recent book, The Ukraine Hoax, claims the presidents phony impeachment was rooted in a vast conspiracy.

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS…

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS...

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My RSS Feedunwinona:

This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS and Polio narrative (among others), only we’re seeing it escalated to weeks and months instead of years or decades.

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