The Justice Department has charged Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to former President Donald Trump, with two counts of contempt of Congress for refusing to provide documents and testimony to investigators probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The House referred Bannon to the Justice Department for prosecution last month after he refused to cooperate with a congressional subpoena. The move is a major victory for the Jan. 6 select committee, which has viewed Bannon’s recalcitrance as a stumbling block in their probe, encouraging other potential witnesses to stonewall investigators.
Attorney General Merrick Garland touted the move in a department press release.
“Since my first day in office, I have promised Justice Department employees that together we would show the American people by word and deed that the department adheres to the rule of law, follows the facts and the law and pursues equal justice under the law,” he said. “Today’s charges reflect the department’s steadfast commitment to these principles.”
Bannon and his spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The indictment represents remarkably quick work by the Justice Department. People familiar with the process of handling congressional referrals told POLITICO it frequently takes months for DOJ lawyers to make prosecution decisions. It’s also a risky step for prosecutors, however, as contempt of Congress charges are rarely brought and almost never lead to conviction.
But Bannon’s case represented a particularly extreme example of defiance: he refused to even appear before investigators under subpoena, even to assert other privileges. And investigators view him as a crucial witness to the events that immediately preceded the Jan. 6 attack.
The case is likely to present some complicated questions about executive privilege, particularly for outside advisers. Bannon has indicated, through his lawyer, that he would cooperate with the Jan. 6 committee if ordered to by a court, but the panel viewed that offer as a stall tactic that could tie up his potential testimony for months or years.
Some Democratic members of Congress had grown impatient with the Justice Department and witnesses’ obstruction, but Garland had largely evaded questions from lawmakers about enforcing subpoenas, insisting on the department’s independence.
“Steve Bannon’s indictment should send a clear message to anyone who thinks they can ignore the Select Committee or try to stonewall our investigation: no one is above the law. We will not hesitate to use the tools at our disposal to get the information we need,” said Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) in a statement Friday.
Each of the two counts Bannon was hit with Friday is punishable by up to a year imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of one month in jail. One charge covers Bannon’s refusal to testify, while the other applies to his refusal to produce documents in response to the committee’s subpoena.
Bannon is expected to self-surrender on Monday to law enforcement, with an initial court appearance on the charges in the afternoon, according to a source familiar with the situation. His case was assigned to Judge Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee.
Some key House Republicans quickly closed ranks around Bannon, with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggesting Republicans will use the precedent set in his case to demand congressional testimony from top Biden aides, should they take the House. And Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a frequent guest on Bannon’s podcast, simply tweeted “StandWithBannon.”
The committee had taken an interest in Bannon’s involvement in a D.C. “war room” related to attempts to overturn the election in the runup to Jan. 6, located at the Willard Hotel. The panel subpoenaed several other campaign figures and Trump allies associated with the war room on Monday.
The filing of criminal charges for defiance of the committee also sends a major signal to other witnesses who are on the fence about testifying. Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows refused to appear for a deposition Friday, despite having been subpoenaed. The department’s move signals that he and others could realistically face criminal prosecution for stiff-arming the probe.
“Mr. Meadows’s actions today—choosing to defy the law—will force the Select Committee to consider pursuing contempt or other proceedings to enforce the subpoena,” said Thompson and Cheney.
Panel members viewed Meadows’ testimony as crucial to their investigation. He was at former President Donald Trump’s side during his months-long attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He was also with Trump on Jan. 6 as violent supporters stormed the Capitol and obstructed Congress’ effort to certify Trump’s loss, and acted as a key intermediary with members of Congress who voted against certifying election results. Additionally, Meadows was involved in efforts to lean on state and local officials in the weeks after Trump’s defeat.
President Joe Biden directly bolstered Thompson’s efforts Thursday, issuing a letter via White House counsel waiving any potential executive privilege claims Meadows might raise.
But Meadows has rejected that notion. His attorney, George Terwilliger, sharply criticized Biden for refusing to support Meadows’ claim of immunity, calling him “the first President to make no effort whatsoever to protect presidential communications from being the subject of compelled testimony.”
Terwilliger instead said Meadows was taking cues from Trump, who has argued that he has the right to assert privilege over his administration’s records. That argument has minimal legal support and is currently the subject of litigation between Trump, the Jan. 6 committee and the National Archives, which preserves White House records.
It’s not Bannon’s first brush with the law. Last August, he was indicted by a grand jury in Manhattan on fraud charges related to a group that raised private funds to support Trump’s call for an expanded, reinforced wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bannon pleaded not guilty to those charges and was awaiting trial when Trump granted him a pardon in January that effectively ended the case against his former White House aide. Trump did not grant clemency to the three other men charged in that case, who are expected to go on trial later this year.