On Friday, Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to President Donald Trump, was indicted for contempt of Congress, signaling that Trump’s ability to shield himself from potentially damning disclosures related to the January 6 attack on the capital may be waning.
The indictment is the first of its kind in nearly 40 years, and it could be an important sign of things to come as Congress seeks testimony from the 35 people and groups, including Bannon, who have so far received a subpoena.
Bannon, who was subpoenaed along with a number of other former Trump officials in September, left the administration in 2017, but reports about Bannon’s conversations with Trump in the lead-up to the January 6 attack, as well as remarks made on his podcast, War Room, indicate that his testimony would be of significant interest to the committee.
On January 5, just one day before the attack, Bannon told listeners of his podcast that “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” according to CNN; in December, according to reporting by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their recent book Peril, Bannon told Trump, “We are going to kill it in the crib. Kill the Biden presidency in the crib.”
Despite Friday’s indictment, it’s unclear whether even the prospect of jail time will compel Bannon to testify; as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote on Friday, “the indictment will likely be a point of pride [for Bannon], proof that he’s a true soldier in this world-altering struggle that he’s been hyping on his show.”
Regardless of Bannon’s own inclination to testify, however, it now appears substantially more likely that he will face some consequence for not doing so, unlike previous Trump officials who have flouted subpoenas; if found guilty, according to the DOJ, he will face “a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of one year in jail, as well as a fine of $100 to $1,000” for each of the two charges of contempt.
And with the DOJ backing up Congress’s requests for information with real legal muscle, the threat of a subpoena could prove a powerful incentive to testify — and a key tool for Congress in the face of Trump’s efforts to stonewall the investigation.
The Bannon indictment is just one of two developments this week that suggests Trump’s stonewalling tactics could be reaching their limit; the other came earlier in the week when a DC district court judge ruled the committee should receive documents from the Trump White House related to the attack.
For the time being, a temporary administrative injunction means that the committee will have to wait at least a while longer to receive the documents — arguments before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals are set for November 30 — but experts say the case is moving quickly by the standards of federal courts, a blow to Trump’s efforts to run out the clock.
Specifically, DC district court Judge Tanya Chutkan’s decision was delivered just 23 days after Trump filed suit, according to the New York Times; in contrast, it took a district court more than three months to rule on a 2019 effort to compel former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify regarding Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation.
In her Tuesday ruling, Chutkan concluded that Trump’s claims of executive privilege are not sufficient to withhold the documents from Congress, writing that “the public interest lies in permitting—not enjoining—the combined will of the legislative and executive branches to study the events that led to and occurred on January 6.”
“Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff [Trump] is not President,” Chutkan said.
Between that case and the threat of indictment now hovering over intransigent former Trump administration officials — and with Trump and the GOP removed from power at least until the 2022 midterm elections — there’s a real possibility that Trump’s favorite tactic, stonewalling, won’t be as effective a shield for him as it has been previously.
Stonewalling is a classic Trump tactic — and one that has worked before
Trump has leaned heavily on delaying tactics throughout his presidency, and there’s a good reason he’s doing the same thing now: It’s worked before.
In the past, either as a candidate or in office with the levers of power at his disposal, Trump has successfully stalled, obstructed, or given the runaround to any number of efforts to uncover potentially embarrassing, or even incriminating, information about himself.
Even before taking office, Trump successfully and repeatedly punted on the issue of releasing his tax returns, citing an audit by the IRS that the agency itself has said wouldn’t prevent him from doing so, and ultimately managed to forestall their release until after he left office, when the US Supreme Court ruled that Trump’s tax returns could be released to the New York City district attorney’s office in a probe into Trump’s personal and business finances.
Similar tactics, including a flat refusal to comply with subpoenas, also worked while Trump was in office; though he was impeached for obstruction of Congress — in addition to abuse of power — in 2019 after directing government agencies and witnesses not to comply with congressional subpoenas, he was ultimately acquitted in the Senate.
As CNN’s Maegan Vazquez pointed out last year, Trump’s “habit of noncompliance is, in some ways, an effective strategy”: Even prior to his first impeachment, Trump’s strategy successfully hampered the Mueller investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. Under pressure to turn around a report quickly, Vazquez points out, special counsel Robert Mueller declined to interview Trump directly, knowing it would turn into a legal morass that would hold up the investigation as long as possible.
But while Trump’s tactics often succeeded when he was in office, with Republicans controlling at least one chamber of Congress, now that Trump and his party are out of power, there’s only so much he can do to block the January 6 committee’s ongoing investigation into his conduct.
Congress doesn’t have time to waste, but Trump may have a lot to hide
Bannon’s indictment also signals the seriousness with which the January 6 committee is handling its investigation — and for good reason.
Among other issues, the committee is potentially facing a time crunch: With the 2022 midterms coming up quickly and Republicans in prime position to win back control of the House, the committee could have only so much time to conduct its investigation before it’s in danger of being shuttered by a Republican House majority.
That means Trump’s stonewalling tactics could be all the more potent, if they succeed, and it raises the stakes of the committee’s work.
Specifically, while much is already known about the actions of Trump and his allies following the 2020 presidential election and ahead of the January 6 insurrection, Trump advisers could still provide key firsthand details if compelled to testify.
Bannon in particular, reporting suggests, was a major instigator in the events that led to the January 6 attack; attorney John Eastman, another key figure who wrote a memo outlining ways that Trump could attempt to overthrow the 2020 election results, was also subpoenaed by the committee this week.
So far, many of Trump’s inner circle have failed to comply with subpoenas; on Friday, his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, blew past a deadline to testify and could now be facing a referral of his own for contempt of Congress.
But as progress this week on several fronts demonstrates, Trump’s best efforts to stonewall haven’t slowed the process as much as he might have hoped. By all indications, the January 6 committee is willing to use its power to pursue a thorough investigation, and if so, it might still have time enough to uncover new details of what happened on January 6 — and how Trump, the clear favorite for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, was involved.