Steve Bannon, an Exiled Mogul, and the Ukraine Rescue Effort That (Mostly) Wasn’t
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Yana’s husband, Anton, had seen a flyer for the bus on social media, and Yana, 25, and their kids, ages 4 and 5, had arrived in the morning to wait for it. As an able-bodied man who was barred from evacuating, Anton learned from afar that his family was still waiting hours later. He complained to the group that had arranged the evacuation, an organization he’d never heard of called the New Federal State of China. An NFSC representative repeatedly assured him buses would show up soon. They didn’t.
The Ibragimovs were among numerous Ukrainians who encountered the New Federal State of China while fleeing their country last spring. Volunteers from the group arrived in early March 2022 in Medyka, on the Polish side of the 500-mile border. NFSC members were hard to miss. They wore matching yellow vests and obsessively livestreamed their activities on social media. They erected a large electronic billboard that flashed the NFSC’s logo and had a well-provisioned tent that dwarfed those that more established aid organizations set up nearby.
What evacuees likely didn’t know was that, unlike those other groups, the NFSC had no experience assisting war refugees. It is an informal entity launched in 2020 by right-wing strategist Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese tycoon who fled to the United States in 2015, shortly before China charged him with a slew of corruption-related crimes.
The NFSC—which claims to be a government-in-waiting that will replace the Chinese Communist Party—is underwritten by two nonprofits also set up by Guo and Bannon. Those, in turn, are part of a larger galaxy of organizations, including for-profit media companies, that Guo has launched with Bannon’s assistance. Alongside misinformation about Covid and the 2020 election, Guo’s outlets offer his supporters in the Chinese diaspora a dizzying array of investment opportunities—cryptocurrencies, a fashion line, and more—that Guo claims will help “take down the CCP.” He is reportedly an investor in the conservative social media site Gettr and seems to wield some control over it, though he has denied owning it. He recently announced a new venture that he claims will allow unvaccinated people “to trade their sperm and eggs” on Gettr.
Guo’s activities have drawn scrutiny from US law enforcement, and he has been repeatedly sued by investors who say he scammed them. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The adventure in Poland appears to have been part of Guo’s larger effort to promote his anti-Communist “whistleblower” movement and raise money. “All wars and disasters of mankind are related to the Chinese Communist Party,” the group said in one flyer describing its work in Medyka. For a few months last spring, snippets from the NFSC’s “Ukraine mission” appeared regularly in videos Guo posted on social media, which often included fundraising appeals. The effort was frequently touted by Guo’s backers, including Bannon.
The NFSC, Guo has claimed, was on the “front-line” in Ukraine. The group said it was working closely with UN agencies and promised to evacuate refugees via chartered planes to locations around the globe. Guo and his supporters said the organization’s relief work was so successful that it had been recognized by various foreign countries.
These claims were false or exaggerated, a monthslong Mother Jones investigation shows. A review of NFSC communications on social media shows the group repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises. A former NFSC member who was involved in the mission told Mother Jones that Guo’s organization lied about its contributions to the relief effort. And in interviews, aid workers on the ground in Poland questioned the value of the NFSC’s activities and said the group’s constant livestreaming and self-promotion resulted in conflicts with other organizations working in Medyka.
In Lviv, where the Ibragimovs were waiting, evening approached. The wartime curfew neared. Still no bus. By about 8 p.m., Yana gave up. She called a taxi, and they left to find somewhere to spend the night.
“People were waiting until evening with constant promises,” Anton recalled months later. His family ultimately crossed the border without the NFSC’s help.
The New Federal State of China tent in Medyka, Poland
Delaney NolanThe New Federal State did not completely fake it. Dozens of volunteers rotated through the NFSC tent, where they offered refugees—as well as other aid workers in the area—wifi and coffee from a $6,500 machine. There were blankets and toys for children.
And the group did arrange for some Ukrainians to enter Poland by bus, according to Telegram messages, refugees who used the service, and the former senior NFSC member who helped organize and joined in the group’s Medyka work. But that effort was modest. The group’s public communications showed it offered bus rides, with drivers the NFSC hired, from Lviv to Poland over just a 14-day-period, between March 5 and March 19. After that, the NFSC told inquiring Ukrainians that it had suspended the service.
Message boards on Telegram suggest that many refugees had trouble even locating the buses. On March 7, a man named Vladimir wrote in the NFSC’s group chat: “Can u stop spamming please and provide any useful information on upcoming buses?” Minutes later, another user wrote, “Yes, we’ve been waiting…nearly 4 hours.” No one from the NFSC responded.
Guo, his nonprofit groups, and the NFSC did not respond to questions from Mother Jones about their claims surrounding the relief effort. Neither did Bannon.
The NFSC heavily promoted its involvement in an effort to help a group of Ukrainian orphans emigrate to Spain. On a flatscreen TV in its tent, the NFSC looped footage of children standing near a bus in the dark as a news ticker scrolled: “NFSC SUCCESSFULLY RESCUE NEARLY 100 CHILDREN FROM UKRAINE.” This claim was repeated by GNews, one of Guo’s media organizations, and was touted by Guo’s Rule of Law Foundation—which underwrites the NFSC—in photos showing children bundled against the cold.
“We have successfully rescued more than 100 Chinese people…more than 350 Ukrainians, Americans and all other nationalities,” an NFSC member who identified herself as Nicole told a Bosnian TV crew last March. “We also worked with a leading Spanish foundation and the Polish government and also the Ukrainian government—rescued 100 children from an orphanage. We brought them from Ukraine to Poland and then sent them off to Barcelona, Spain.”
The NFSC’s precise role in aiding the orphans is unclear. The group provided at least some financial assistance to a Catalonian organization, called TANU, which has worked with Ukrainian children for 23 years. TANU says it raised about $40,000 to evacuate “92 minors in early March.” In an email, TANU said NFSC members “were with us paying and helping our children with a safe and comfortable displacement.” TANU did not respond to requests to further clarify what exactly the NFSC did.
Guo and his supporters have said that NFSC members were engaged in a “front-line rescue in Ukraine” and were conducting an “operation in the war zone.” But David—the former senior NFSC member who was one of the leaders of the group’s effort in Poland—disputed the idea that Guo’s followers entered Ukraine at all. David said he wasn’t familiar with the specific details surrounding the orphan rescue. But he said he knew that “no member of the NFSC actually made it into the Ukraine.”
David agreed to be identified by the name he used while working with the NFSC but asked that Mother Jones not use his legal name. Guo’s backers often use nicknames rather than their given names.
Volunteers who worked alongside the NFSC members in Medyka said they never saw them enter Ukraine, though they could not be certain that no one from the group ever did so. Lee Whonic, a senior logistical coordinator working with Connect Aid in nearby Przemysl, spent all of March 2022 and the first half of April making runs across the Medyka border crossing. During these daily trips over the course of six weeks, she says, she “didn’t see anyone from the NFSC contributing in a similar way.”
In an April 17 Telegram message, an NFSC coordinator indicated that Guo’s followers were staying away from the war zone. “The lawyers of the Rule of Law Foundation are not allowing our rescue team to enter Ukraine for the time being,” this volunteer wrote in the chat that the NFSC had promoted as a resource for fleeing Ukrainians.
At the same time, Guo’s group touted its collaboration with high-profile international organizations. On its website, for example, the NFSC claims to have worked with “UN aid organizations to offer international humanitarian rescue assistance to those in need of voluntary evacuation.” The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which assisted Ukrainians, did not respond to requests for comment. Whonic said UNHCR did not have a meaningful presence in Medyka until well after the NFSC had left, meaning that significant cooperation was “not really possible.” This was yet another example of “false promotion,” according to David.
In messages posted on Telegram in early March 2022, as well as in Nicole’s interview with the Bosnian TV crew, the NFSC offered free chartered flights out of Poland for refugees traveling to “the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, EU countries among others.” The NFSC also said it could provide free accommodations for up to 30 days.
On March 13—a day after promoting the Bosnian TV interview on social media—the NFSC announced on Telegram that it had canceled the free chartered flights “due to the insufficient number of applicants.” The group said that eligible refugees could be rebooked on free commercial flights and that charter flights might be rescheduled for the future.
The New Federal State never provided any charter flights to Ukrainians, David, the former NFSC member, told Mother Jones. He said that although Guo had claimed the group would provide this and other services, the NFSC members in Medyka never had the money to do anything of the sort. There was “no charter flight at all,” David said in an interview in December.
On March 11, a Ukrainian man named Artem asked the Telegram group if the NFSC could help him and nine other refugees with 30 days of free accommodation. “All we can provide is a bus to Poland,” a group administrator replied. “We had to give up the 30-day accommodation due to a lack of resources.”
The NFSC seems to have exaggerated even minor details. Fliers the group posted online claimed its Medyka tent had served 7,362 refugees in the 19 days ending on March 23. David said the group had helped far fewer people. He sent videos showing the tent largely empty on various days when the group’s claims suggested it should have been full and said that other members had simply inflated the numbers. “They lied,” he said. Whonic, too, says she never saw the tent “particularly full.”
The New Federal State of China tent in Medyka, Poland
Delaney NolanNFSC volunteers did one thing assiduously: They filmed everything. According to David, that was directed by Guo. The ability to livestream video, David said, was the main motivation behind the tent’s strong wifi signal.
Guo didn’t care “how many [refugees] the group rescued,” David recalled. “He cares about whether we present the NFSC well to the world.”
David said he based that conclusion on his experience in Medyka and on Guo’s own words. In a March 18, 2022, audio message David shared with Mother Jones, Guo told volunteers in Poland to “stop all other activities” there. “Only focus on Medyka,” he said. “Broadcast, broadcast and broadcast!” (This message, which was in Chinese, has been translated.)
About a month into the NFSC’s time in Medyka, the incessant livestreaming began to cause conflict with other aid groups on the border.
A volunteer with another organization, who asked not to be identified due to concerns about possible retaliation, said she and other relief workers found the NFSC’s constant filming stressful. “We were burnt out from cameras in our faces,” she recalled. “It’s an invasion of privacy.” But even after asking them to stop, she says, “they didn’t stop at all” and “they didn’t ask permission.”
The group, she said, also filmed refugees without their consent as they crossed the border into Medyka. “You don’t need to have a camera crew when you’re doing something for someone else,” she added.
Simon Massey, a Medyka volunteer who was working independently and supporting several different organizations, said that while the NFSC’s warm tent was helpful in the cold, early days, he noticed that the group seemed increasingly focused on self-promotion as time passed.
“They were very, very media-heavy in their focus,” Massey said. “They livestreamed to Twitter pretty much 24/7.”
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was for press coverage [and] visibility,” Whonic said. “To say anything other than that is, I think, ridiculous, because of the amount of press coverage [and] the amount of merch…they had a ton of branded merch.”
As aid workers grew increasingly frustrated with the NFSC, meetings between the leaders of various NGOs in the region grew tense, according to people involved in the relief effort. Coordinators from at least four groups—including the International Organization for Migration and International Fund for Animal Welfare—reached out to one another to express concerns about Guo’s followers.
In late April, a Medyka volunteer confronted NFSC members, accusing them of capitalizing on the crisis to advance their political agenda. NFSC members livestreamed the exchange, wearing yellow hazard vests and caps emblazoned with the group’s slogan: “We are the NEW CHINESE who are taking down the EVIL Chinese Communist Party.” At one point, the volunteer lunged to push a camera phone out of his face.
The next day, four NFSC members, again filming, demanded he apologize. “It’s censorship. It’s dictatorship,” Nicole, the woman who spoke with the Bosnian news crew, declared.
Things escalated. Posts appeared on social media calling the volunteer who had criticized the NFSC a racist and a liar. Images with ROLF and NFSC logos bounced around Twitter and other networks branding him a “Chinese communist lackey” and photoshopping his picture in front of a hammer and sickle. In one video, Guo urged his followers in Poland to sue the volunteer for assault.
Such tactics are standard fare for Guo’s supporters. In incidents detailed in court filings and news reports, Chinese dissidents and others who have publicly criticized Guo or his movement have been targeted outside their homes by Guo acolytes who accuse them of acting as CCP agents. Several people targeted by these protests have reportedly been physically assaulted or have reported receiving death threats. In a civil trial in 2021, Guo admitted to dispatching backers to harass critics, though he denied encouraging violence.
Nicole claimed in an interview in Medyka last April that the group was apolitical, apart from its opposition to the CCP. “We don’t care about American politics, left or right,” she said. “I’m not into American politics!”
It is hard to square this claim with an appearance she seems to have made in a 2021 Vice report. There, a woman who appears to be Nicole—identified as Pamela Tsai—was shown with a group of Guo supporters who were part of the pro-Trump crowd near the White House on January 6, 2021. (Tsai previously wrote for Epoch Times, a far-right publication linked to Falun Gong, a religious movement that has been repressed by the Chinese government.)
“The Chinese Communist Party printed the ballots from China and shipped them here,” she told Vice, referring to a popular, wholly unsubstantiated MAGA conspiracy theory about the 2020 election.
Tsai has risen to prominence in Guo’s organization in the last few years. In December 2022, she represented the group at a right-wing conference in Phoenix. She also regularly hosts video segments posted on Gettr under the heading “NFSC Speaks.” In January, she used this platform to falsely allege that the Chinese government was behind Mother Jones‘ past reporting on Guo. “These people are totally paid for and owned by CCP,” she said. Tsai did not respond to repeated inquiries in recent months.
The New Federal State of China tent in Medyka, Poland
Delaney NolanEven before the NFSC arrived in Medyka, Guo was raising money off the effort. In a February 26, 2022, video, he announced that his nonprofits—the Rule of Law Foundation and Rule of Law Society—were joining the international humanitarian relief effort in Ukraine. And, he noted, they were accepting donations.
The two nonprofits have not yet disclosed their 2022 financial information. But sources with knowledge of Guo’s finances said the Ukraine project was a boon for fundraising. The Rule of Law Society raised about $240,000 from credit card donations in March 2022, according to transaction records. That’s well above its normal intake, according to the one of those sources.
In March and into the spring, Guo regularly extolled the work of NFSC volunteers in Poland in videos that appeared on Gettr. On April 5, 2022, for example, Guo claimed that his supporters were “on the front lines of our Ukraine rescue operation” and that the effort “has made a big difference.” That day, the Rule of Law Society received at least 50 credit card donations totaling more than $25,000. That is far more than the group takes in on a normal day. “I wish all the comrades in the Ukrainian frontlines to take care of themselves and protect themselves,” one donor wrote in Chinese.
Wenxin Chu, a former Guo supporter, told Mother Jones he “donated over $3,000 to the Rule of Law Foundation during the so-called Ukraine rescue.” Chu, who shared email receipts documenting those contributions, said he has since concluded that “they lied.” Guo, he said, at one point pledged to rent a transport plane to help evacuate Ukrainians, “but in fact there was no plane.”
People who have previously worked with Guo’s groups say he frequently uses high-profile events like the war in Ukraine to motivate backers.
“You have got to get people excited so that they can open their wallet,” Sasha Gong, a former Rule of Law Society board member who later broke with Guo, said. “If you listen to Guo, he talks about whatever is fashionable and in the news…That Poland thing is one thing that keeps his people engaged. Without excitement, you don’t have a movement.”
Towards the end of May, posts on GNews began announcing that NFSC members would soon “evacuate” from Medyka. By mid-June, the NFSC had departed. Most other aid groups likewise left Medyka as summer went on.
On September 8, prosecutors in New York charged Bannon with money laundering and conspiracy as part of an alleged scheme to defraud donors to a nonprofit that had raised millions to privately fund a wall on the US-Mexico border. Bannon has pleaded not guilty and claims he is a victim of political persecution. (Bannon was hit with similar charges by the feds in 2020, when he was arrested while living on Guo’s $28 million yacht. Donald Trump ultimately pardoned him.)
Guo—who last year declared bankruptcy—has himself been accused in various lawsuits of defrauding would-be investors. Some of the plaintiffs have alleged they were required to donate to Guo’s Rule of Law groups before they could invest in his businesses. In 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined media companies he set up $539 million for holding an illegal stock offering. The SEC, as well as the FBI, continue to probe Guo’s financial dealings, according to three sources contacted by federal investors. Guo denies all wrongdoing, claiming his legal issues result from Chinese government influence.
Some of Guo’s financial ventures seem especially far-fetched. In a music video released last year, he promoted a crypto product dubbed HCoin. HCoin is sold through a platform called Himalaya Exchange, which Guo has said will provide currency for the world’s most populous nation when the Chinese government collapses. “If the New Federal State gains legitimacy, the Himalaya Exchange will naturally have the legitimacy too,” Guo said in a June 4 broadcast. In May, Guo said that “brothers in arms on the Ukraine Rescue frontline” could “earn money” by receiving HCoin and other crypto currency.
Experts have said Guo’s crypto offerings raise red flags. According to the trustee in Guo’s bankruptcy case, Guo’s “Himalaya cryptocurrency operation and his other online schemes have resulted in numerous allegations of fraud against [Guo] and his associates.”
Guo and Bannon have insisted that the NFSC is indeed on the cusp of international recognition. And the Ukraine mission has been central to those claims.
In a clip filmed in Medyka, a voiceover claimed the group was “hosting senior diplomatic officials and interviewing foreign leaders at the national level.” In the video, Tsai spoke to the prime minister of Belgium, who offered anodyne comments on assisting the needy, before adding: “Happy to hear, of course, that you are helping.” Guo later claimed that modest encounter amounted to a “tacit declaration of diplomatic recognition” of the NFSC. Bannon called the meeting “absolutely historic.”
Asked about that claim, a spokesperson for the Belgian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that “Belgium has never given any diplomatic recognition to this organization.”