Eight months before he was arrested for allegedly using his We Build the Wall nonprofit to enrich himself, Brian Kolfage was headed to the White House.
He posted a picture of his RSVP confirmation on Twitter for the Dec. 4 visit and tagged it "#wallBuildersClub." His wife posted Instagram photos of their two children next to Christmas trees in the East Wing.
It's not clear whom Kolfage met with that night, or what the purpose of his visit was. The White House did not respond to inquiries about the visit, and Kolfage told BuzzFeed News it was "most likely an undocumented trip."
But nearly immediately after starting a viral campaign that raised more than $26 million to build a privately funded border wall along the US–Mexico border, pictures, videos, and social media accounts show that Kolfage and We Build the Wall repeatedly tried to make connections in the White House, the Trump administration, and the first family — and they succeeded. The president's son even praised the group at a fundraising event in New Mexico — funds that federal officials now allege were used to personally enrich Kolfage, Bannon, and two other associates.
"Brian, thank you so much for all your sacrifices, doing this, and showing really what capitalism is all about," Donald Trump Jr. told Kolfage in Sunland Park, New Mexico, in July 2019. "This is what private enterprise is at its finest."
Trump's girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, the national chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee, also spoke, telling the group gathered for a livestreamed fundraiser: "Don and I wanted to come down and see what's going on, and it's really impressive at what you've been able to accomplish."
As a gift, the group gave the president's son a custom-built Springfield 1911 handgun emblazoned with their logo on the handle.
A spokesperson for Trump Jr. told BuzzFeed News the praise of the group at the time "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."
She added that Trump Jr.'s involvement with the group was one speech, and that he never gave the group permission to use him as a testimonial.
At the time, We Build the Wall had also offered donors a free autographed copy of Trump Jr.'s book, Triggered.
But after charges of wire fraud and money laundering were filed Thursday against Kolfage and former top Trump aide Steve Bannon in connection to the fundraising campaign, the White House sought to distance itself from the group.
"President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat, and perhaps raise funds," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Thursday said.
In July, the president for the first time mentioned the border wall project, saying he "disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group," and suggested that it was "only done to make me look bad."
But We Build the Wall's board of directors was composed of ardent Trump supporters, including Bannon, Erik Prince, Curt Schilling, Tom Tancredo, and Kris Kobach.
Kolfage was often photographed with members of Trump's family, including his sons.
In January 2019, when Kolfage was given an award at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort recognizing him for his work with the nonprofit, Eric Trump attended the event.
Other former members of Trump's campaign also visited We Build the Wall's projects in a show of support, including Corey Lewandowski and Dave Bossie.
Then in August 2019, a spokesperson for We Build the Wall said she had been able to speak with President Trump about the nonprofit's effort to build the private wall.
"He said I really know my stuff & our group needs to bid the whole wall project," Amanda Shea wrote on Twitter after mentioning she had been able to meet personally with the president at the Hamptons.
At one point, Kolfage told BuzzFeed News the group would end up building a "federal wall" completely funded by the group, but would not provide specifics on how such an arrangement would work.
But some of Kolfage's critics said they didn't believe he or the group had made real inroads at the White House, and were instead using the appearance of having done so to their advantage.
"Don Jr. gets sent out to make whatever yokel group feel special, but do you really think Don Jr returns from these trips and debriefs his daddy on the organizational structures and membership participation or anything at all? Of course not," said Louie Caponecchia, a Navy veteran who in 2014 won a legal battle against Kolfage over a Facebook harassment incident. "With Kolfage, Don Jr probably saw an opportunity to sell his book to a pack of idiots that will clearly throw their money at anything."
For some people who worked with Kolfage, news of the indictment were received with a "feeling of elation."
"We want truth to prevail, and we knew he was pulling the wool over people's eyes," said Savannah Pointer, who worked with Kolfage from March 2017 to April 2018. "I truly hope that people understand that Kolfage and Bannon don't speak for most conservatives. They always and forever spoke for (and looked out for) themselves, and that's what eventually brought them down."
Lindsay Lowery, who worked in 2017 for Kolfage's main conservative website, Freedom Daily, said she tried to warn people about his past during the wall fundraising campaign, saying "many people continued to believe the war hero facade he hides behind."
"Sadly, there's now countless other victims who have fallen prey to this relentless bully and con artist," she told BuzzFeed News.
In July, after Trump tweeted that he "disagreed" with the We Build the Wall project, Kolfage brushed off the comment.
"He is easily influenced by fake news," he told BuzzFeed News in direct messages responding to a report that federal inspectors would be sent to a second wall funded partially by We Build the Wall in Texas that had shown signs of erosion. "Trump himself never sent the tweet about us."
Instead, he alleged opposition to We Build the Wall came from Jared Kushner, President Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
"[They] don't like the private industry," Kolfage said.
Asked if he had any way to backing up his claim, he said he couldn't.
"You know who I work with," he said. "They all communicate regularly, [all] verbal."