Steve Bannon ‘stonewalls’ House intelligence’s Russia questions, inviting contempt charge
Republican lawmakers on Thursday weighed whether to hold former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress after he declined to answer questions for a second time as part of the House intelligence committee’s Russia probe.
Bannon visited Capitol Hill to take questions from the panel behind closed doors, but would only answer 25 questions that had been pre-approved by the White House.
He answered each question “no” and told the committee he was not authorized to elaborate, according to lawmakers of both parties.
Florida Representative Thomas Rooney said Tuesday that if Bannon didn’t cooperate with the panel and they didn’t hold him in contempt, that would set a bad precedent.
“For not just our committee but every committee, that [subpoenas] don’t mean anything, that it’s just a hollow threat,” said Rooney, who was deputised to help run the committee’s Russia probe.
He surmised that the panel’s leaders, including Chairman Devin Nunes of California, would be ready to sign off on the move.
Democrats are pushing for a contempt vote, with the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, California Representative Adam Schiff, saying he believed Bannon’s non-answers were all an attempt to draw out and block the Russia probe.
“That’s not how privilege works, that’s how stonewalling works,” Schiff said. “And we cannot take that kind of stonewalling for an answer.”
Bannon was already under subpoena as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been critical of the White House’s sweeping interpretation of executive privilege and its contention that pretty much everything is off limits until the president says it’s not.
Bannon and the House Intelligence Committee had been in a weeks-long standoff over his refusal to discuss anything from the presidential transition period or his tenure advising President Trump in the White House.
The committee issued Bannon an on-the-spot subpoena last month, after his lawyers argued that executive privilege could apply to the periods in question.
Bannon’s return to the committee had already been scheduled and delayed three times, while the White House worked out the terms of the interview with the House counsel.
“I’m not okay with it,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina on Bannon’s silence about the transition period as he headed into the closed-door interview.
Gowdy led the panel last month in pushing Bannon to answer all questions and ultimately deciding to issue him a subpoena. Now several Republicans on the panel, as well as Democrats, are ready to hold him in contempt if he does not fully comply with it.
On Wednesday night, the White House sent the committee a letter outlining its argument for why executive privilege could apply to the transition period, according to panel members. But lawmakers continue to reject that premise, and it was not clear whether the letter constituted a formal invocation of privilege.
Bannon has not put any such limitations on his participation in the Justice Department’s Russia probe, being run by special counsel Robert Mueller. The Intelligence Committee’s effort is not supposed to overlap with Mueller’s probe, but members stress that the same events and people are relevant to both of the investigations.