Steve Bannon appeared before the House Intelligence Committee last month as a cooperating witness, then proceeded to surprise everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, by claiming privilege on everything he did, said, or heard while on the campaign, transition team, or at the White House. Bannon even claimed his undefined, but apparently all-encompassing, privilege extended to things that he did after leaving the White House. The committee, which had already dealt with other Trump staffers claiming some level of this previously nonexistent form of don’t-call-it-executive privilege were so flabbergasted by Bannon’s refusal to talk about anything substantive, that they subpoenaed him on the spot, converting him to a compelled witness—a status in which the House doesn’t recognize privilege of any sort, not even attorney–client or religious privilege. Bannon still refused to talk.
The Intelligence Committee sent Bannon home to think about his position, and produced a subpoena to drag him back into chambers for another discussion—one at which they expected actual talk. Only now, it appears that Bannon is going to take his privilege one step further, and simply stay home.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is not expected to appear before the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday, risking being held in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena, according to a source close to the process.
Bannon apparently will only agree to appear if the committee promises not to ask him about any of the things that the committee wants to know. Negotiations over what Bannon would and would not talk about have already twice delayed his return to the committee, but those negotiations appear to have ended with no agreement and no more extensions.
So today Bannon is scheduled to appear—but won’t. And then the House Intelligence Committee will have to decide whether or not to take any action at all. And it isn’t likely.
Holding someone in contempt of Congress is a rare event, but Republicans have demonstrated in recent years that they’re willing to make that call … against Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s IT direct Bryan Pagliano was found in contempt for refusing to show up for the Oversight Committee in 2016. The same committee found IRS manager Lois Lerner in contempt in 2014 when she pleaded the Fifth Amendment concerning the IRS “scandal” that later ended with no charges. In both cases, the contempt charge went nowhere. The letter to direct the Sargent at Arms to arrest either Pagliano or Lerner was never brought before the full House for action.
The last time contempt charges really went somewhere was in 1983, when Assistant EPA Administrator Rita Lavelle spent three months in a federal jail after lying to Congress and misusing money from the “Superfund.” Lavelle went on to enjoy more prison time in California as, like her spiritual descendant Scott Pruitt, she was far more interesting in breaking environmental laws then preserving them.
If Bannon earns a contempt citation, it will put him on a surprisingly short list. If Congress actually does something about it, it will make history.
But if the House fails to act, members of the Trump staff will continue to expand the idea of this new form of privilege until they can thumb their noses at Congress with impunity. That might—might—be enough to get even Republicans to wake up.