- House Intelligence Committee members are weighing whether to hold former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon in contempt after he refused to answer key questions about his White House tenure on Thursday.
- Bannon answered “no” to a list of questions that had been pre-approved by the White House and declined to answer further questions, citing executive privilege.
- Bannon is not required to meet the White House’s demands, but experts say he “has an interest in” keeping President Donald Trump happy.
Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee are nearing the end of their patience with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Bannon has been in a heated back-and-forth with the committee, which is investigating Russia’s election interference, for weeks over his refusal to answer key questions related to his tenure on President Donald Trump’s transition team and in the White House.
On Thursday, Bannon appeared before the committee after failing to show up for multiple previously scheduled hearings.
But his testimony was significantly limited – he answered “no” to a list of 25 questions that the White House had pre-approved after invoking executive privilege, CNN reported.
Ranking member Adam Schiff slammed Bannon and the White House following the former chief strategist’s closed-door testimony. Referring to Bannon’s refusal to answer questions outside of the list the White House had provided, Schiff said, “That’s not how privilege works; that’s how stonewalling works.”
Schiff, as well as some Republicans on the panel, are now seriously weighing whether to hold Bannon in contempt.
“I’m not OK with” Bannon declining to answer questions about post-election events, Rep. Trey Gowdy told CNN on Thursday.
A source familiar with Bannon’s thinking told the outlet that Bannon was prepared to be held in contempt.
Bannon first appeared before the panel in January but has stonewalled lawmakers three times in a row amid ongoing negotiations between the committee and the White House about which questions he could answer.
He also frustrated lawmakers in January when he and his lawyer took numerous breaks in the middle of testimony to convey questions to the White House counsel’s office, which in turn told Bannon which questions he should and should not answer, multiple media outlets reported.
Bannon ‘has an interest in’ keeping the White House happy
Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, previously told Business Insider that only Trump himself can invoke executive privilege.
“Executive privilege relates to material generated for or on behalf of the President, not anyone else working in the White House. But, Bannon is not the one to assert executive privilege – only the president can do that,” Gerhardt said.
But he added that it’s not “unusual for a White House to try to control the questioning of current or former employees.”
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told Business Insider in January that Bannon is under no obligation to comply with the White House’s directives.
“Bannon is doing that voluntarily,” he said. “His attorney did not need to be as vigilant as he was in ensuring that he was complying with the White House’s request – there is nothing legally Trump could do to Bannon if he ignored it. What this shows is that Bannon is very much on Trump’s team.”
Gerhardt largely agreed.
The White House “has as much control as Bannon and his lawyer allow them. They can’t order [Bannon] to do anything, but he has an interest in keeping the [White House] happy.”
Bannon has been in the doghouse since he was quoted eviscerating Trump, his family, and his close allies in Michael Wolff’s explosive and lightly sourced book, “Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
Bannon did not deny making the comments about Trump and his loyalists, but he issued a lengthy apology as the president hit back at Bannon’s reported statements with characteristic fervor. Shortly after, when he began losing support from conservative donors and Trump backers, Bannon stepped down from his perch atop the far-right website Breitbart News.
In addition to testifying before House Russia investigators, Bannon also interviewed with special counsel Robert Mueller over multiple days this week, NBC News reported Thursday.
He spent approximately 20 hours answering questions from Mueller’s team, according to the report. The sit-down came after Mueller subpoenaed Bannon in January to testify before a grand jury.
Legal experts said at the time that the move was likely part of the special counsel’s effort to negotiate an informal interview with the former chief strategist. Mueller is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible involvement.
A key witness
Bannon is a potentially crucial witness in the Russia probe. In addition to being one of Trump’s top advisers during the transition period and in the White House, he also had a seat on the National Security Council.
Rumours have swirled that Bannon, while in the White House, was responsible for some of the most damaging leaks about Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, including one about Kushner’s meeting in December 2016 with the CEO of a US-sanctioned Russian bank.
Bannon was also highly critical of a meeting that Kushner, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., took with two Russian lobbyists in June 2016.
According to Wolff’s book, Bannon called the meeting “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.”
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad s—, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” Bannon reportedly said.
He later clarified that he was primarily criticising Manafort, who he said should have known better than to meet with the Russians at the height of the campaign.
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