The House voted on Thursday to hold Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress, over his refusal to comply with a subpoena issued by the House select committee investigating the 6 January Capitol attack.
The approval of the contempt citation, by 229 votes to 202 against, escalates the select committee’s efforts to punish Bannon for his non-compliance as they intensify their inquiry into whether then-president Trump helped plan or had advance knowledge of the insurrection.
The House select committee chair, Bennie Thompson, the Democratic congressman from Mississippi, said the authorization of the criminal referral against Bannon signalled their determination to deploy their most aggressive measures to take action both against Bannon and any other Trump aides who might ultimately defy subpoenas.
“We need to make it clear that no person is above the law, we need to take a stand for the committee’s investigation, and for the integrity of this body,” Thompson said on the House floor.
“What sort of precedent would it set for the House of Representatives if we allow a witness to ignore us, flat out, without facing any kind of consequences? What message would it send to other witnesses in our investigation? I’m not willing to find out,” he added.
The move to request the justice department to prosecute Trump’s former chief strategist also marks a stinging personal rebuke to Bannon, and opens a new legal front in the select committee’s efforts to pursue information from inside the White House and Trump circles before 6 January.
Members on the select committee recommended that the House hold Bannon in criminal contempt after they unanimously rejected the notion that Trump’s former chief strategist could claim absolute immunity from congressional oversight on grounds of executive privilege.
The select committee had issued subpoenas last month to Bannon and top Trump administration officials – including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, his deputy Dan Scavino, and former defense department aide Kash Patel – under the threat of prosecution.
But directed by Trump and his attorney to defy the orders, Bannon ignored his subpoena in its entirety, infuriating the select committee that then moved immediately to vote to recommend that the House find him in contempt of Congress.
The referral now heads to the justice department, where the attorney general, Merrick Garland, the US attorney for the District of Columbia and the Office of Legal Counsel are required by law to weigh a prosecution and present the matter before a grand jury.
Should the justice department secure a conviction against Bannon, the consequences could mean up to a year in federal prison, $100,000 in fines, or both – though it would still not force his compliance and pursuing the misdemeanor charge could take years.
The select committee views Bannon’s testimony as crucial to their investigation, since he was in constant contact with Trump in the days and weeks leading up to the Capitol attack.
Bannon was one of the key architects – alongside Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and lawyer John Eastman – of the plan to stop the certification of Joe Biden election’s win and attempt the extraordinary move of returning Trump to the Oval Office, according to a source familiar with the matter.
That meant Bannon was involved in meetings with the Trump campaign – and potentially even Trump himself – at the Trump International hotel and the Willard hotel in Washington the night before the Capitol attack.
Bannon also appeared to predict the Capitol attack itself, saying on his War Room podcast the day before the insurrection that left five dead and 140 injured, including dozens of police officers, and lawmakers and staff in fear for their lives: “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”
In opening remarks before the vote to recommend Bannon’s prosecution, the Republican vice-chair of the select committee, Liz Cheney, suggested the reason for his non-compliance might be because he was fearful of compromising Trump.
“Mr Bannon’s and Mr Trump’s privilege arguments do appear to reveal one thing, however: they suggest that President Trump was personally involved in the planning and execution of January 6th. And we will get to the bottom of that,” Cheney said.
But despite the high stakes, Bannon informed the select committee he would not cooperate with his 23 September subpoena, and claimed the materials and testimony requested by the panel were protected by executive privilege and could not be turned over to Congress.
The select committee rejected that argument on Tuesday.
Bannon’s legal argument also faces a steep uphill struggle, with the Biden justice department appearing inclined to adopt a narrow interpretation on executive privilege, previously allowing top Trump justice department officials to testify to Congress about 6 January.
In the contempt report for Bannon, the select committee noted that they had requested documents and testimony regarding his contacts with members of Congress and the Trump campaign, which could not conceivably be covered by a White House secrecy protection.
The contempt report noted that even if the select committee accepted his executive privilege claim, it would still not have allowed him to ignore the subpoena since the protection exists for White House officials – and Bannon was fired by Trump in 2017.