Top Democrat Says House Intelligence Committee Could Hold Steve Bannon In Contempt
Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Bannon’s refusal to answer questions in the committee’s Russia probe “unprecedented” on Wednesday.
Lawmakers investigating Russian election interference are vowing to bring former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon back to Capitol Hill after he refused to answer many of their questions in a marathon interview on Tuesday. And now the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee says the panel could hold the former Trump campaign chairman in contempt.
Bannon, who was ousted from the White House in August, appeared voluntarily before the committee on Tuesday, spending more than 10 hours behind closed doors with lawmakers investigating Russian interference and potential collusion during the 2016 election.
But members of the committee said Bannon, through his lawyer — who was on the phone with the White House — refused to answer questions about his time in the administration as well as the transition period. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the committee subpoenaed Bannon on the spot.
Even after the panel issued a subpoena, however, Bannon and his attorney declined to answer questions about events that occurred after Election Day.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the committee, called the situation with Bannon “unprecedented” on Wednesday. The panel has already interviewed others in Trump’s orbit, including former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and on Wednesday added outgoing White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to that list.
When asked if the committee would hold Bannon in contempt, Schiff said, “If he and the White House persist in refusing to answer relevant, non-privileged questions, then we’ll have to pursue whatever legal remedies we have, which would require a court.”
Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, the Republican who has led the investigation since committee chairman Devin Nunes stepped aside from the Russia probe, declined to say whether the committee would hold Bannon in contempt, however. “We’re going to get the answers to our questions,” he said, adding: “The subpoena is still in place.”
Both Schiff and Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, another member of the committee, said Bannon would be back before the panel “shortly,” but did not specify a date for a second interview.
“We’ll hope to get a different answer back from his counsel after they consult with the White House because the position they took yesterday is completely unsustainable,” Schiff said.
Bannon reportedly refused to answer questions, citing executive privilege, which allows presidents to keep some information about their discussions and deliberations private. During the interview, Bannon’s lawyer relayed the committee’s questions to the White House by phone, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed Wednesday.
The White House on Wednesday refused to say whether it had actually invoked executive privilege, however. Sanders told reporters the White House “is following the same practice” as “many White Houses before.”
“Sometimes they actually have a White House attorney present in the room [during congressional inquiries],” Sanders said. “This time it was something that was relayed via phone, and again, was following standard procedure for an instance like this and something that will likely happen again on any other number of occasions, not just within this administration, but future administrations."
The next test of the White House’s cooperation with House investigators will come later this week, when White House communications director Hope Hicks is scheduled to testify.
"That was a sharp contrast to yesterday’s interview with Mr. Bannon in which the White House made off-limits huge areas of questioning that took place," Schiff said.
Moreover, Schiff said Lewandowski would not answer questions about "meetings [or] conversations" that took place after Trump fired him from the campaign in June 2016, saying he was unprepared to answer but would come back to do so. In particular, Schiff said Lewandowski wouldn't say whether he had talked to Trump recently about the interview with the committee.
"This, in my view, is completely unacceptable," Schiff said. "Now, as a committee, if we follow the practice that we maintained yesterday, we should have subpoenaed him today and compelled answers to those questions."
Schiff said there was "no appetite" among Republicans on the committee to subpoena Lewandowski as they did with Bannon, though. "Clearly Mr. Bannon's being treated differently; differently by the White House and differently by the majority," Schiff said.
"You'd have to ask the White House [why]," he said.
Some lawmakers on the committee say the White House, and Bannon, are relying on an overly broad definition of executive privilege in refusing to answer questions about the transition period, before Trump was inaugurated.
“Nobody's presented a plausible legal theory of the case to invoke executive privilege in the absence of the president doing it,” said Rep. Denny Heck, a Democrat on the committee. “So, yeah, people are upset. Quite upset. ... I understand somebody invoking their Fifth Amendment rights and not incriminating themselves, I understand they have a constitutional reason for doing that, but to do it under this theory, which is highly questionable, just seems to me that they are saying as loudly as they can, I've got something to hide, and I'm not going to share it."
Bannon’s testimony was hotly anticipated after the publication of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, which quoted Bannon calling a June 2016 meeting between a Russian lawyer and members of the Trump campaign “treasonous,” among other things. Following the book’s publication, Bannon said his comments were misreported, but the damage was done: Trump quickly turned on “Sloppy Steve,” and Breitbart News, the pro-Trump publication, parted ways with Bannon.
Bannon was also reportedly subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller to testify before a grand jury in the FBI’s investigation. Bannon, according to the Daily Beast, will be more forthcoming with Mueller than he has been with the House panel.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, however, has previously said he isn’t interested in hearing from Bannon as part of that panel’s probe.
Lissandra Villa contributed reporting.
This story was updated with Rep. Adam Schiff's comments on the committee's interviews with Rick Dearborn and Corey Lewandowski on Wednesday.