Steve Bannon, a longtime ally of former President Donald Trump, surrendered to the FBI on Monday morning following his indictment on contempt of Congress charges.
The former White House adviser and right-wing media personality spent about four hours in custody before being released on his own recognizance by a judge at a court hearing Monday afternoon.
Bannon was indicted Friday over his refusal to appear for a deposition or provide documents to the House select committee investigating Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election results, and the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that those efforts inspired. News reports suggest that Bannon was in touch with Trump in the crucial days before Jan. 6 — the day Congress is required to certify the presidential election results — and joined other key Trump advisers planning strategy on Jan. 5.
The case is crucial for the Jan. 6 select committee — and congressional power in general. Contempt of Congress cases have rarely succeeded in history; however, few targets have ever defied a congressional subpoena as brazenly as Bannon. He refused to engage with the Jan. 6 committee until after his deadline to appear, and he leaned on a theory of “absolute immunity” that has no legal backing and has only ever been contemplated for a president’s closest official advisers.
But Jan. 6 investigators are hopeful that the real effect of Bannon’s indictment is on other potential witnesses — like former Trump adviser Michael Flynn — who might rethink outright defiance rather than risk prosecution.
Bannon remained defiant as he surrendered Monday morning at the FBI’s field office in Washington. He arranged to have his surrender live-streamed on GETTR, a web platform launched by members of the former president’s inner circle in the wake of Trump’s removal and ban from Twitter. He also plugged his “War Room” podcast lineup for later in the day.
“We’re taking down the Biden regime. … Remember, signal not noise,” Bannon told his supporters. “This is all noise. That’s signal.”
After going through the booking process, Bannon made his first court appearance in the case before Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather at the federal courthouse a few blocks south of the FBI office. No plea was taken at that hearing, which consisted largely of legal formalities. Prosecutors did not ask for Bannon to be detained pending trial.
Soon after the hearing, Bannon and his attorneys emerged from the courthouse to unleash a withering verbal attack on the House committee and the Justice Department.
“I’m telling you right now, this is going to be the misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden,” Bannon told journalists. “Joe Biden ordered Merrick Garland to prosecute me from the White House lawn when he got off Marine One and we’re going to go on the offense. We’re tired of playing defense. We’re going to go on the offense on this.”
Others outside the courthouse also went on offense, taunting Bannon with shouts of “Traitor!” as well as various profanities. A larger-than-life-size inflatable rat and signs branding Bannon as a “coup plotter” contributed to the circus-like scene.
Bannon attorney David Schoen, who represented Trump at his second impeachment trial, offered a preview of Bannon’s defense. He indicated his client would argue that he did not willfully defy the committee because he had legal advice that Trump’s executive privilege claims might be valid.
“Mr. Bannon acted as his lawyer counseled him to do by not appearing and by not turning over documents in this case,” Schoen said. “He didn’t refuse to comply.”
Schoen also stressed that Bannon has pledged that he will testify and provide the requested records if a court concludes Trump’s privilege claim is invalid.
Bannon said the criminal charges against him should outrage all Americans.
“Not just Trump people, not just conservatives, every progressive and every liberal in this country that likes freedom of speech and liberty, okay, should be fighting … this case,” he said. “That’s why I’m here today, for everybody. I’m never going to back down, and they took on the wrong guy this time, OK?”
The criminal case against Bannon has been assigned to Judge Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee. Nichols, who is expected to rule on any legal challenges to the charges and to preside over any trial on the indictment, has set an initial hearing before him on Thursday morning.
Bannon faces two misdemeanor contempt of Congress charges: one for refusing to testify and another for refusing to turn over subpoenaed documents. He faces a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a minimum penalty of one month in jail on each charge, if convicted.
Bannon shifted his defense counsel in the wake of Friday’s indictment. He had been represented by Robert Costello, a former senior federal prosecutor in New York who is also representing Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, but brought on Schoen and former federal prosecutor Evan Corcoran on Monday.
Corcoran is a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, which is overseeing Bannon’s prosecution. He is also defending a former U.S. Capitol Police officer accused of obstruction of justice in the aftermath of Jan. 6, Michael Riley.
Neither Schoen nor Corcoran is attached to a major law firm. Many such firms have been reluctant to take on clients seen as aiding or encouraging the Capitol riot.
The change of lawyers appears to dovetail with Bannon’s plan to invoke an advice-of-counsel defense to the charges. That could make Costello a witness at any trial.
Schoen spoke to the media on Monday and did the speaking during the court hearing. The session had been expected to include an arraignment on the charges, but Bannon’s lawyers and prosecutors put off that step after Schoen raised concerns about whether that should happen before a magistrate judge. Meriweather seemed to be prepared to take Bannon’s plea, but later agreed with Schoen that it would be unwise.
“It would be prudent not to do the arraignment,” the magistrate judge said.
Bannon, wearing a dark green barn jacket and at least three dark shirts, was led into the courtroom by deputy marshals. He answered, “I do,” when a court clerk asked him whether he promised to tell the truth at the session. He calmly answered questions from Meriweather. At various times, he leaned over to consult with his lawyers.
The court hearing was largely uneventful, although the two marshals sat behind Bannon throughout. At one point, he stood up abruptly to greet an approaching court clerk, only to be firmly instructed by one of the marshals to return to his seat. Those marshals later escorted Bannon out a back door of the courtroom to complete processing before he rejoined his lawyers.
In advance of the hearing, marshals could be seen searching the chair Bannon was to sit in for potential contraband. Among the security personnel in the courtroom was acting U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia Lamont Ruffin.
Ruffin wound up in the news earlier this month after organizing an inspection of the D.C. central jail following complaints from many of the Jan. 6 detainees and judges handling their cases. Ruffin’s team found numerous violations of federal standards, including mold, lack of water, drug use and threats of retaliation by jail staff. As a result, federal authorities announced plans to remove 400 federal detainees from the jail.
However, the roughly three dozen Jan.6 defendants held at the jail are expected to remain there. They are being held in an annex that the marshals said appeared to meet federal guidelines.