The indictment of former President Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon on charges of criminal contempt of Congress on Friday sent shock waves through Washington – serving as a powerful warning to other potential witnesses that there will be consequences for defying the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
It remained unlikely that Friday’s indictment would lead to Bannon testifying before the committee – even as he faces at least 30 days of jail time for his defiance of their requests – since he has so effectively used his past legal battles with Democrats to burnish his image as a victim of political persecution while being elevated to folk hero status among Trump’s core voters.
Still, the indictment marked the first real flash of power by a committee that has sometimes struggled to gain its footing while facing a wall of obstruction from Trump loyalists. For months, the former President and some key figures from his inner circle have treated the January 6 panel as an ineffectual nuisance, making it clear that they see no need to cooperate with subpoenas or turn over documents for an investigation they view as a politically motivated charade.
Bannon’s indictment may mark a turning point in that dynamic as Trump allies who have received subpoenas consider whether they can endure protracted legal battles and the possibility of jail time.
Up to this point, Trump had essentially provided cover to many of his former staffers with broad claims of executive privilege as he tries to keep some 700 pages of records from his presidency from around the time of the insurrection out of the hands of the committee in a separate legal battle that is playing out in the courts. Trump won a reprieve on Thursday when a federal appeals court granted his request to pause the release of certain documents as he appeals a lower court’s decision that he can’t claim executive privilege to keep them from the committee.
Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is one of the key potential witnesses who had adopted Trump’s rationale as a shield for his refusal to cooperate with the committee. In the hours before the Bannon indictment Friday, Meadows became the latest Trump adviser to flout the January 6 committee’s authority when he failed to appear in person for a deposition, which may lead the panel to begin a criminal referral process against him.
Meadows’ attorney had held that he would not cooperate with the committee until the courts ruled on Trump’s executive privilege claims. President Joe Biden has firmly rejected those claims, with the White House counsel writing in recent correspondence with the National Archives, the custodian of the Trump administration’s White House records, that such assertions of executive privilege are “not in the best interests of the United States” given the “extraordinary events” that occurred on January 6.
Given the flippant response to their requests from Trump loyalists thus far, committee leaders clearly hope that Bannon’s indictment will prove to Meadows and others that there will be accountability for those who defy them in their quest to investigate White House involvement in the events of January 6.
In a joint statement Friday evening, Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of two Republicans serving on the committee, said Bannon’s indictment “should send a clear message to anyone who thinks they can ignore the Select Committee or try to stonewall our investigation: no one is above the law. We will not hesitate to use the tools at our disposal to get the information we need.”
Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director, said it was an important moment for the January 6 panel – even if it is not any closer to hearing from Bannon, who is likely to fight the panel through every step of the legal process.
“It puts them on an even footing to be able to push back on witnesses if you’re giving them this stiff arm currently,” McCabe, a CNN law enforcement analyst, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.” “At the end of the day, the most significance here is to the other witnesses who are recipients of subpoenas. Many of them will not make the same choice. They’re not similarly positioned to Steve Bannon, in that an indictment is not going to help them publicly. And so folks might start thinking twice about cooperating.”
The Bannon indictment was also important in potentially nudging some potential witnesses to comply with subpoenas or document requests more quickly to avoid legal consequences, instead of simply attempting to run out the clock on the committee’s work – knowing that there is a strong possibility that Republicans could take control of the House and Senate in the 2022 elections.
Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois congressman who is the other Republican serving on the committee, told Tapper on Friday afternoon there is little question that Republicans will try to kill the panel if they take control of Congress next year.
“I think there is absolutely no doubt that that would happen,” he said. “I think that is why – frankly – the Trump folks are trying to stall. They don’t have a claim of executive privilege. They know the answers aren’t going to be great for them, so their hope is to make it to swearing-in next year or the year following.”
Kinzinger said he hoped the indictment sent a “chilling message” to other invited witnesses that “you cannot ignore Congress.”
“You may not like it – you may not like the investigation. You may think nothing wrong was done,” Kinzinger said. “But you’re not going to be able to avoid it, and that’s important for the people of the United States to be able to have their voice heard, to be able to get answers in Congress.”
Bannon’s knowledge of events leading up to January 6 may remain a mystery
A federal grand jury handed down a two-count indictment Friday charging Bannon with one count related to his refusal to appear for a deposition and a second related to his refusal to turn over documents. Each count carries a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of one year in jail, according to the Justice Department.
The committee has been keen on speaking with Bannon because members believe he had specific knowledge about the events on January 6 before they occurred, and they have cited his comments during a January 5 podcast that appeared to foreshadow the chaos that few others knew was coming.
“It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen. OK? It’s going to be quite extraordinarily different,” Bannon said during the podcast. “All I can say is, strap in. … You made this happen and tomorrow it’s game day. So strap in. Let’s get ready. All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”
The committee has also noted that Bannon had other roles relevant to its investigation, including his participation in the “Stop the Steal” campaign that was a driving force for the attack on the Capitol and his contacts with Trump around the time of the insurrection. The House voted 229-202 to hold Bannon in contempt on October 21 with nine Republicans breaking ranks to join Democrats in supporting the move.
Bannon is expected to self-surrender on Monday and appear in court on Monday afternoon. His lawyer had told the committee that he would not cooperate with their investigation because Trump advised him not to and argued that the documents and testimony the committee was seeking were potentially protected by the former President’s claims of executive privilege. “We must accept his direction and honor his invocation of executive privilege,” attorney Robert Costello told the committee, referring to Trump.
Attorney General Merrick Garland had been under growing pressure to put legal muscle behind the committee’s requests, as many advocates of the panel’s work had argued that Trump allies would never take its requests seriously without a show of force. The former President spent his four years in the White House flouting government norms and defying the powers of Congress as he sought to consolidate his own power within the executive branch, and many of his former aides have followed his example as the committee tries to understand how the US democracy nearly collapsed in a coup on January 6.
Though lawmakers grew impatient with the Justice Department for not acting more swiftly in Bannon’s case, CNN’s Evan Perez reported Friday that department officials felt that a careful review was warranted because these kinds of cases are rare. Ultimately, the decision to charge the President’s former strategist was made by career prosecutors and supported by the attorney general.
“Since my first day in office, I have promised Justice Department employees that together we would show the American people by word and deed that the department adheres to the rule of law, follows the facts and the law and pursues equal justice under the law,” Garland said in a statement after the indictment. “Today’s charges reflect the department’s steadfast commitment to these principles.”