A federal criminal trial is set to begin on Monday to determine whether Stephen Bannon, the influential former adviser to Donald Trump, broke the law by refusing to comply with a subpoena for documents and testimony by the panel investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Last fall, the congressional committee investigating the deadly Capitol riots subpoenaed Bannon to sit for a deposition and to provide a wide range of documents related to the events of January 6. Bannon refused to comply. The committee cited him for contempt and referred him to the US justice department for prosecution in October of last year.
The justice department pursued the referral, and a federal grand jury indicted Bannon on two counts of contempt of Congress, both misdemeanors, in November. It is extremely rare for the justice department to pursue such charges – before Bannon, the last contempt prosecution was in 1983. Bannon faces between 30 days and a year in prison if convicted on each charge.
Bannon, whom Trump fired from the White House in August of 2017, has emerged as a powerful conservative voice since leaving the White House, and his podcast, War Room, has become a must-stop for those on the political right. He has used it to stoke baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and began outlining how Trump could try to overturn the elections starting in September 2020.
Days in advance, Bannon predicted that Trump would declare himself the winner on election night and take advantage of confusion that would result as Democrats picked up votes because of mail-in ballots that were counted after in person votes. Trump wound up doing exactly that.
The committee said in its contempt report that Bannon appeared to have “some foreknowledge” of what would happen on 6 January. It has also said that Bannon and Trump spoke twice on 5 January. “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” Bannon said on a podcast after the first call. “It’s all converging and now we’re on the point of attack tomorrow.”
In the leadup to the attack, Bannon was also was present at the Willard hotel, the nucleus of Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Bannon is the first former Trump administration official to face a criminal trial for refusing to participate in the January 6 probe. From the moment he was indicted, he has pledged to fight the charges, saying on his podcast recently he was going “medieval” and would “savage his enemies”. But Bannon has suffered a number of defeats in the leadup to the trial as US district court Judge Carl J Nichols, a Trump appointee, has blocked many of Bannon’s main defenses.
“What’s the point of going to trial if we don’t have any defences?” David Schoen, one of Bannon’s lawyers, said at a recent hearing. Nichols replied by simply by saying “agreed”.
Nichols’s ruling stripped Bannon of some of his key defenses, including that he had been relying on the advice of his lawyer when he defied the subpoena. Bannon’s lawyers have also claimed that Trump invoked executive privilege to shield Bannon from compliance, but it’s not clear that Trump did so and whether or not a former president has the power to grant such protection to someone not serving in government. The Trump lawyer Justin Clark told Bannon’s attorney in a letter that he didn’t believe Bannon was immune from testimony.
After the rulings, the only defenses that appear to remain for Bannon is that he might have somehow misunderstood the deadline to respond to the subpoena, and that he did not think he had defied the subpoena because the select committee told him in a letter after the deadline that they hoped he might still cooperate with the investigation.
Bannon has maneuvered to try to delay the trial, citing the publicity of the committee’s public hearings and by recently offering to testify before the panel. Prosecutors argued the move was an attempt to put off the trial. Bannon had also attempted to call prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as witnesses in his case, but Nichols’s rulings appear to make it more difficult for him to do so.
Government prosecutors have said it will take them just a day to put on their case. Bannon’s lawyers have said their defense could take weeks.
Federal prosecutors are also pursuing contempt charges against Peter Navarro, another ex-Trump administration official. Like Bannon, Navarro has pleaded not guilty.
Hugo Lowell contributed to this report.
July 18, 2022 at 11:44AM Sam Levine in New York