(Headline USA) Longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon appeared before a judge to face criminal contempt charges for defying a subpoena from Congress’ partisan Jan. 6 committee, then declared combatively outside court that he was “taking on the Biden regime” in fighting the charges.
The indictment says Bannon didn’t communicate with the committee in any way from the time he received the subpoena on Sept. 24 until Oct. 7 when his lawyer sent a letter, seven hours after the documents were due.
Bannon did not enter a plea Monday and is due back in court on Thursday for the next phase of what could be the first high-level trial in connection with January’s uprising at the U.S. Capitol.
Combative outside court, he said he was “going on the offense” against the attorney general, the speaker of the House and President Biden. He declared, “This is going to be a misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.”
Both of the Pelosi Republicans who agreed to take part in the congressional show trial already have faced severe political consequences.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., announced that he would not run again after Illinois Democrats gerrymandered him into a district where he would have faced a conservative primary challenger.
On Monday, Wyoming Republicans voted officially to stop recognizing Rep. Liz Cheney as a member of the party.
The 67-year-old Bannon surrendered earlier in the day to FBI agents.
He was indicted on Friday on two federal counts of criminal contempt—one for refusing to appear for a congressional deposition and the other for refusing to provide documents in response to the committee’s subpoena.
Federal Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather released him without bail but required him to check in weekly with court officials and ordered him to surrender his passport. If convicted, Bannon faces a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of one year behind bars on each count, prosecutors said.
Outside the courthouse, a large inflatable rat made to look like Republican former President Donald Trump was on the sidewalk as a crowd waited for Bannon to leave. Some in the crowd shouted expletives at him and called him a traitor, and one man paraded around with a sign that read: “Clowns are not above the law.”
The indictment came as a second expected so-called witness, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, defied a separate subpoena from the committee on Friday and as Trump has escalated his legal battles to withhold documents and testimony about the insurrection. Bannon and Meadows are key witnesses for the committee because they both were in close touch with Trump around the time of the Jan. 6 Capitol rally, although neither is directly linked to the event.
Republicans have criticized the commission as a fishing expedition to obtain information about Trump’s future political aspirations with the Biden administration in rapid decline in the lead-up to the 2024 election. Already, the House Democrats have failed at one effort to prevent Trump from being eligible to run.
If the House votes to hold Meadows in contempt, that recommendation would also be sent to the Justice Department for a possible indictment.
The committee claimed that Bannon urged Trump to focus on the congressional certification and was present at an event at the Willard Hotel on Jan. 5 in which Trump allies tried to persuade members of Congress to vote against the results. That has often been the prerogative of the opposing party and one long exercised by Democrats for less valid reasons.
Bannon’s lawyer, David Schoen, said his client didn’t appear before Congress because he was told by another lawyer not to come after Trump claimed executive privilege would apply.
“Mr. Bannon is a lay person. When the privilege has been invoked by the purported holder of privilege, he has no choice but to withhold the documents. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “Mr. Bannon acted as his lawyer counseled him to do by not appearing and by not turning over documents in this case. He didn’t refuse to comply.”
Schoen also decried the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute Bannon, claiming it runs counter to Attorney General Garland’s statement of commitment to equal justice under the law.
Officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations have been held in contempt by Congress, but criminal indictments for contempt are exceedingly rare.
The department in the Obama administration declined to prosecute then-Attorney General Eric Holder and former IRS official Lois Lerner following contempt referrals from the Republican-led House. And George W. Bush’s Justice Department declined to charge Harriet Miers after the former White House counsel defied a subpoena in a Democratic investigation into the mass firings of United States attorneys.
And Hillary Clinton actively defied Congressional subpoenas by destroying evidence related to her private email servers but was never held accountable.
Bannon’s indictment on contempt of Congress charges is the nation’s first since 1983, and his appearance in federal court provides a rare glimpse into one of U.S. lawmakers’ politically messiest and least-used powers.
The last successful prosecution reaches all the way back to Watergate and its aftermath when G. Gordon Liddy and Richard Kleindienst were convicted and pleaded guilty, respectively, for refusing to answer congressional questions.
The last indictment three decades ago was less historic: A federal environmental official under President Ronald Reagan failed to heed a House subpoena. The official, Rita M. Lavelle, who headed the Superfund, would go on to be acquitted of the contempt charge but later was convicted of lying to Congress. She was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $10,000.
Defendant Lavelle was a member of the Republican administration, while Democrats controlled the House. And the Justice Department has been wary of prosecuting such cases when the White House and the House of Representatives are controlled by opposing political parties.
“While the [contempt] law doesn’t differentiate in any way between a Republican or a Democratic president or Congress, it tends to break down along those lines,” said Stan Brand, who served as former House counsel when lawmakers referred the then-EPA chief to the U.S. Justice Department for criminal charges.
Prior to that case, the majority of contempt of Congress cases were in connection with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was formed in 1938 to investigate individuals and organizations for subversive activities, particularly those related to the Communist Party.
A number of contempt cases from HUAC were eventually overturned due to procedural failures. But its widely publicized hearings beginning in 1947 focusing on the film industry led to prison sentences for several screenwriters and directors, the so-called Hollywood Ten.
They refused to answer questions about their political activities or identify like-minded colleagues and were jailed for up to a year as well as blacklisted in the industry.
“Historically, if you look at the record of these types of cases in the ‘50s, ’60s, even the late ‘’40s, so many of them were thrown out by the courts for technical deficiencies,” Brand said.
“It’s not that these cases are complicated, but they are difficult cases to make,” he added.
When Brand was House counsel in 1982, a subcommittee held then-EPA chief Anne Gorsuch Burford, the mother of current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in contempt for her refusal, at the direction of then-President Reagan, to turn over subpoenaed documents about her agency’s efforts to enforce a law requiring the cleanup of hazardous waste dumps. The Justice Department declined to pursue the charges and went on to file a lawsuit to prevent further action on the contempt referral.
In all, the House has brought five criminal contempt and three civil contempt actions against Executive Branch officials since 2008. In each instance of a criminal contempt citation, the executive branch declined to refer the charges to a grand jury.
Brand said the hurdles that have faced past committees is that the Justice Department has historically not prosecuted executive officials who were instructed by the president to raise executive privilege.
This, he said, is not necessarily the case with Bannon, where the courts will have to define the limits of executive privilege and if the implied presidential power protects the capacity of former White House aides and outside allies of the president.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press