Former chief White House political strategist,
Steve Bannon appeared before the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and declined to answer all questions posed to him by members of the panel, including those of Republican Mike Conaway (R-TX).
Fellow GOP panel member Devin Nunes, (R-CA) was left with no option but to issue a subpeona to Bannon’s attorney. “Of course I authorized the subpoena,” he told reporters. “That’s how the rules work.”
Bannon was in meeting in closed door hearings for over 10 hours, but most of that time was spent bargaining about what Bannon would discuss and what he wouldn’t.
The Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tao reported that Bannon told members of the committee that he would not disclose information about what he knows about events that transpired while he was participating in the transition or acting as political advisor to the president, because the White House requested that he not do so.
White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for her part, told reporters that “no one” had encouraged Bannon not to be transparent during questioning but there’s a “process of what that looks like.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D, Calif.), ranking Democrat on the panel, had a different interpretation:
“This was effectively a gag order by the White House preventing this witness from answering almost any question concerning his time in the transition or the administration and many questions even after he left the administration. He (Bannon) quickly informed through his counsel the committee he was not going to answer questions that pertained to meetings, conversations, events, etc., that took place either during the transition or while he was part of the administration. And what’s more, we would later learn that would be extended to even after he left the White House.”
Lending credibility to that interpretation is the WSJ’s reporting that Bannon’s attorney told committee members that the White House requested that Bannon refuse answering questions in order to guard the president’s executive-privilege prerogatives at some point down the line. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has employed the same rationale for not answering questions posed by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Panel member Conaway indicated that the committee will doggedly pursue cooperation from Bannon. “The subpoena stays in effect. We’re going to get the answers from Mr. Bannon that we did not get today.” The other subpeona, the first of a likely series of Grand Jury subpeonas of Trump’s West Wing inner circle, is from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
There are a few similar schools of thought regarding the most probable interpretation of Mueller’s subpeona of Bannon. Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti opines that the Grand Jury subpeona has the advantage of preventing Bannon from giving scripted testimony. “It will be easier to catch Bannon off-guard and receive truthful answers. Testifying before a grand jury is intimidating.”
Vice Dean at Cornell Law School Jens David Ohlin, sees an additional aspect in Mueller’s summons – Bannon may not want to answer questions under oath voluntarily, but the subpeona would give him an excuse to do so, without incurring more wrath from Trump’s most virulent supporters, including the president’s biggest supporter, Trump himself.
Ohlin says that an “intriguing possibility” is that “Bannon wants to testify but is afraid of appearing too eager.” Bannon has “learned the hard way that opposing Trump will be met with charges of disloyalty from their combined base,” Ohlin said. “In light of this, Bannon might have told Mueller: ‘I’ll testify, but only if you subpoena me’.”
Adding to the speculation on Mueller’s Grand Jury tactic is 26 year veteran in the post of Justice Department Deputy Assistant Attorney General, William Yeomans, who believes that Mueller conceivably will apply pressure on Bannon to produce testimony against the other key players on Mueller’s list – the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in particular.
Especially volatile for Trump and Kushner are statements that Bannon has already made publicly, such as the one he made to Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman:
“He’s taking meetings with Russians to get additional stuff. This tells you everything about Jared. They were looking for the picture of Hillary Clinton taking the bag of cash from Putin. That’s his maturity level.”
As to Executive Privilege strategies such as Bannon is posturing his recalcitrance to answer questions on, they have not historically been very successful for other presidents in recent history, including Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.