But the risks of that strategy became clear on Monday as the ex-President’s political arsonist turned himself in to the FBI after a grand jury had indicted him for contempt of Congress last week. Ever the outsider wrecking ball, Bannon set the example for turning efforts to hold Trump acolytes accountable into fuel for more extremism.
The former Wall Street banker turned firebrand populist podcaster relished his moment in the spotlight, embracing victimhood in the name of Trumpism just like political dirty tricks master and Trump fan Roger Stone.
He vowed to topple the Biden “regime” and to make the charges against him a “misdemeanor from Hell” for the President, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Attorney General Merrick Garland, who signed off on his prosecution.
“I am never going to back down. They took on the wrong guy this time,” Bannon said, launching what is effectively a political campaign that will unfold alongside what could be a long legal fight, which could even outlast the committee’s lifespan if Republicans win control of the House next November and shut down the probe.
The questions now are whether Bannon’s coming date in court this week for an arraignment will wipe out some of his bravado, and persuade other Trump ex-officials not to risk the law’s ire and to agree to testify. Or will his unleashing of a new Trumpian cause célèbre convince other subpoenaed allies of the former President – like ex-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows – to stand firm on questionable assertions of executive privilege? And will Bannon’s line in the sand, which runs parallel to Trump’s emerging political comeback and possible 2024 White House bid, set a standard that anyone who wants to remain in the ex-President’s orbit must match despite personal legal jeopardy?
Sources told CNN that the committee will consider the case of Meadows on Tuesday, though is yet to come to a consensus on whether he will face a criminal contempt of Congress citation like the one that precipitated the Justice Department move against Bannon.
The committee wants to speak to Bannon about his alleged role in a “war room” in the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, where he reportedly boosted Trump’s campaign to steal the election from Biden, and about preparations for the January 6 rally that turned into a riot. Bannon is claiming his consultations with Trump are covered by executive privilege. But the concept that allows presidents to get confidential advice from advisers seems a stretch in this case since Bannon was not a serving White House official at the time and left the government in 2017.
Bannon’s choice of language was no mistake. His use of the word “regime” to describe Biden’s government is another example of the authoritarian streak that the ex-President’s acolytes hope to ride back to power. Of course, Biden was democratically elected and his victory reflected the will of 81 million voters who rejected the idea of a second Trump term. If any operation is acting like a “regime” – a word usually associated with tyrannical juntas and illegitimate governments that seize power by force – it is Trump’s. After all, he incited the Capitol insurrection by his mob on January 6.
The price of holding Trump world to account
Bannon’s media histrionics on Monday, which were aimed at Trump supporters and devotees of his inflammatory podcast that pulsates with lies about the 2020 election, also underscored another difficulty of holding the ex-President or his wider circle to account. When one side is trying to preserve the rule of law by conventional means and the other is whipping up as much chaos as possible, the instruments of accountability themselves become tarnished.
In many ways, the unchained behavior of Trump and his allies left those who want to defend democracy from his transgressions little choice but to pull institutional levers of law and justice. But such action brings a heavy cost when Trump and Bannon – whose methods revolve around tearing down truth and institutions and seeing where the wreckage falls – are involved.
Trump’s two impeachments, for example, didn’t result in his conviction for abusing power in trying to get Ukraine to interfere in the election or over the coup he incited in a bid to stay in office. His iron rule over GOP senators saw to it that he was acquitted in both instances. But those impeachments did deepen political divides and stoke the anger on which his appeal to his base thrives. The two historic battles between Congress and Trump also so politicized the machinery of government and democracy that they lost trust among millions of Trump supporters. Those traditional methods of holding aberrant presidents to account may therefore not function effectively in the future.
When there is a powerful force like Trump, who cares little for the rule of law or history’s shame with a double impeachment, the consequent latitude for out-of-bounds political behavior is limitless. Perhaps, eventually, Bannon will pay the price for defying the House select committee with jail time. But the political rewards for him could outweigh such sanctions and discomfort. And if his sacrifice is followed by a Trump restoration, Bannon could probably expect a pardon to match the one Trump already granted him in a fraud case.
His legal fight could give him a media spotlight for months that far outshines his normal role on the conservative airwaves, where he has become an increasingly influential voice among Trump partisans.
The case could be a long and winding road, with possible delays, multiple filings and appeals and complicated debates on the question of executive privilege. There also may be a few wild card moments.
The assigned judge, Carl Nichols, is a Trump appointee who has a history as a lawyer of defending the Bush administration in disputes over congressional subpoenas, CNN’s Evan Perez reported. But judges also often balk at their courtrooms being turned into circuses. A judge in a case involving Stone that arose out of the Mueller investigation, for instance, imposed a gag order when the veteran Richard Nixon-era operative-turned-Trump-confidant tried to turn it into a political media spectacle.
Trump team feels they’re ‘above the law’
The possibility that Bannon would use his indictment as yet another political platform, after spending years claiming a deep state conspiracy by the establishment to destroy Trump’s populist rule, was always obvious. But one of the committee’s most prominent members, Rep. Adam Schiff, who led Democrats in the first Senate impeachment trial, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he believed the Bannon indictment was already effective.
“Even before the Justice Department acted, it influenced other witnesses who were not going to be Steve Bannon. And now that witnesses see that if they don’t cooperate, if they don’t fulfill their lawful duty when subpoenaed, that they too may be prosecuted, it will have a very strong focusing effect on their decision making.”
But Schiff also admitted there’s a risk that witnesses who portray themselves as political martyrs to the ex-President’s “Make America Great Again” crowd could take inspiration from Bannon’s defiance.
“I’m concerned, frankly, of what that represents, basically that the Republican Party, at the top levels, that is Donald Trump and those around him, seem to feel that they’re above the law and free to thwart it,” he said.
“Bannon did what he did because for four years, that’s what worked. They could hold Republican Party conventions on the White House grounds. They could fire inspector generals, they could retaliate against whistleblowers. It was essentially a lawless presidency and they were proud of it.”
The House select committee has so far issued 35 subpoenas to individuals and organizations seeking testimony and documents. Trump is currently appealing a federal court ruling that knocked down his attempt to assert executive privilege over call logs, White House visitor logs, memos and other material. Members of the committee argue that law and precedent mean the final say on privilege issues lies not with the former President but the current one. Biden has said the events of January 6 were so heinous that Congress’ obligation to investigate outweighed any jeopardy that ex-Presidents might face in future.
The committee’s next move on Meadows will be watched carefully. Though a staunch Trump loyalist, the former North Carolina congressman is less of a partisan flame thrower than Bannon. But as a serving White House official at the time of the insurrection, he may have a stronger executive privilege case than the celebrity podcaster. Sources told CNN’s Ryan Nobles and Annie Grayer on Monday that the committee had yet to come to a consensus on how to move against the former White House chief of staff.
While Meadows didn’t show for a required appearance before the committee on Friday, he did make it for a Fox Business Network interview on Monday with anchor Larry Kudlow, a fellow former Trump White House official, about the events on January 6.
“I can tell you, you and I both know that no one in the West Wing had any knowledge that anything like what happened on January 6 was going to happen,” Meadows said.
It’s once thing to make such a comment on FBN, but Meadows has so far been unwilling to repeat it under oath to the select committee. It is that inconsistency and spirit of defiance that motivated the panel’s duel with Bannon and could soon land the ex-chief of staff in similar trouble.