WASHINGTON – A congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection has moved aggressively against Trump adviser Steve Bannon, swiftly scheduling a vote to recommend criminal contempt charges against the former White House aide after he defied a subpoena.
The chairman of the special committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the panel will vote Tuesday to recommend charges against Bannon, an adviser to Donald Trump for years who was in touch with the president ahead of the most serious assault on Congress in two centuries. And late Friday, President Joe Biden said he thinks his Justice Department should prosecute.
“The Select Committee will not tolerate defiance of our subpoenas,” Thompson said in a statement Thursday. Bannon, he said, is “hiding behind the former president’s insufficient, blanket and vague statements regarding privileges he has purported to invoke. We reject his position entirely.”
If approved by the Democratic-majority committee, the recommendation of criminal charges would go to the full House. Approval there would send them to the Justice Department, which has final say on prosecution.
Asked if the Justice Department should prosecute those who refuse to testify, Biden said yes.
“I hope that the committee goes after them and holds them accountable,” Biden told reporters Friday at the White House.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, Anthony Coley, said after Biden’s comments that “the Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop.”
Later Friday night, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that Biden “supports the work of the committee and the independent role of the Department of Justice to make any decisions about prosecutions.”
The showdown with Bannon is just one facet of a broad and escalating congressional inquiry, with 19 subpoenas issued so far and thousands of pages of documents flowing to the committee and its staff. Challenging Bannon's defiance is a crucial step for the panel, whose members are vowing to restore the force of congressional subpoenas after they were routinely flouted during Trump’s time in office.
The committee had scheduled a Thursday deposition with Bannon, but his lawyer said Trump had directed him not to produce any information protected by executive privileges afforded to a president, and Bannon wouldn't comply “until these issues are resolved.” Bannon, who was not a White House staffer on Jan. 6, also failed to provide documents to the panel by a deadline last week.
Still, the committee could end up stymied again after years of Trump administration officials refusing to cooperate with Congress. The longtime Trump adviser similarly defied a subpoena during a GOP-led investigation into Trump’s Russia ties in 2018, but the House did not hold him into contempt.
Even though Biden has been supportive of the committee’s work, it is still uncertain whether the Justice Department would choose to prosecute the criminal contempt charges against Bannon or any other witnesses who might defy the panel. Even if it the department does prosecute, the process could take months, if not years. And such contempt cases are notoriously difficult to win.
Members of the committee are pressuring the department to take their side.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who also sits on the Jan. 6 panel, said he expects the Justice Department to prosecute the cases.
“The last four years have given people like Steve Bannon the impression they’re above the law,” Schiff said during an interview for C-SPAN’s Book TV that airs next weekend. “But they’re going to find out otherwise.”
While Bannon has outright defied the Jan. 6 committee, other Trump aides who have been subpoenaed appear to be negotiating. And other witnesses are cooperating, including some who organized or staffed the Trump rally on the Ellipse behind the White House that preceded the riot.
Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 marched up the National Mall after attending at least part of Trump’s rally, where he repeated his meritless claims of election fraud and implored the crowd to “fight like hell.” Dozens of police officers were injured as the Trump supporters overwhelmed them and broke through windows and doors to interrupt the certification of Biden’s victory.
The rioters repeated Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud as they marched through the Capitol, even though the results of the election were confirmed by state officials, upheld by courts and even rejected by Trump's own attorney general.
The panel has also issued a subpoena to a former Justice Department lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, who positioned himself as Trump’s ally and aided the Republican president’s efforts to challenge the results of the 2020 election.
A Senate committee report issued last week showed that Clark championed Trump’s efforts to undo the election results and clashed as a result with department superiors who resisted the pressure, culminating in a dramatic White House meeting at which Trump ruminated about elevating Clark to attorney general.