It is also alleged that Bannon, Kolfage and two other defendants created a non-profit and shell company, using fake invoices, sham “vendor” arrangements and other measures to conceal the payments.
Bannon was arrested while aboard a 150-foot yacht called the Lady May owned by Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui – a vocal critic of the Chinese goverment now wanted by Beijing on charges of fraud, blackmail and bribery, according to the Washington Post.
The stunning allegations, only 74 days from the US election, are a blow for Trump, adding to a long list of current and former associates who have faced criminal charges, including Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen and Roger Stone.
Bannon appeared in court late on Thursday and pleaded not guilty to the charges. Asked about the matter earlier, the President insisted: “I know nothing about the project, other than when I read about it I didn’t like it.”
“I thought that was a project that was being done for showboating reasons; I didn’t know that he was in charge, I didn’t know any of the other people either,” he said. “But it’s a bit sad. It’s very sad.”
Bannon was once an influential figure in the White House, and helped to elevate Trump’s populist appeal and nationalist ideology during the campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Before he was tapped to lead Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in its critical final months, Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News.
He worked as the President’s chief strategist until he was ousted in August 2017, after the pair reportedly had a falling out. Trump insisted on Thursday that he hasn’t “been dealing with him at all”.
Democrats nonetheless seized on the news as another example of the contrast between Trump and presidential nominee Joe Biden, who is due to give his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention later on Thursday.
Biden campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said Trump had consistently used his office “to enrich himself, his family and his cronies, so is it really any surprise that yet another one of the grifters he surrounded himself with – and placed in the highest levels of government – was just indicted?”
“Sadly it is not,” she said.
Bannon is named in the indictment alongside Kolfage, Andrew Badalato, and Timothy Shea.
In a statement, Manhattan’s acting US Attorney alleges that they “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalising on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction”.
All four of the defendants are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
In another major legal development on Thursday, a federal judge rejected Trump’s latest effort to block the Manhattan district attorney from obtaining his tax returns.
“This is a continuation of the witch hunt – the greatest witch hunt in history,” Trump said.
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Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist based in the US for the 2020 presidential election.