Concerning the purported meddling of Russia in US politics, former White House aide – Steve Bannon has refused to answer questions posed to him by the House Intelligence Committee during a closed-door session, even after he was issued a subpoena to testify by the committee on Tuesday. Bannon’s reason for not answering the question? The White House told him not to.
The ranking Democrat on the committee – Adam Schiff, said during a news conference after the hearing that had taken more than a few hours, that Bannon’s lawyer had told the committee that the former White House aide “was willing to answer our questions but under instructions from the White House not to”. In view of the situation, Schiff condemned what he called “a gag order from the White House”.
Steve Bannon, who was a former head at Breitbart, testified before the committee but refused to answer any questions about his time in the transition, in the Trump administration and even after his exit from the White House.
A recess was called at the hearing and the subpoena still remains in effect, which means that Bannon could be called again to testify under oath.
Schiff said: “This was the first time we saw a witness refuse to answer the questions under the instructions of the White House or claim that the White House might later invoke privilege.”
It was reported earlier on Tuesday, that Bannon had received a grand jury subpoena last week from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
The intelligence committee’s chair, the California Republican Devin Nunes, acknowledged its subpoena to reporters same day, saying: “Of course I authorized the subpoena, that’s how the rules work.”
The subpoena issued by the committee was the result of Bannon apparently invoking the doctrine of executive privilege, which is the implicit power of the executive branch to withhold information about internal deliberations.
Earlier on Tuesday, press secretary Sarah Sanders said “no one” had encouraged Steve Bannon not to be transparent during questioning but there’s a “process of what that looks like”.
She further went on to say to reporters: “As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House. Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material. This is part of a judicially recognized process that goes back decades.”
However, the supreme court has made clear that giving the president “an absolute privilege” against a subpoena “on no more than a generalized claim of the public interest in confidentiality of nonmilitary and nondiplomatic discussions would upset the constitutional balance of ‘a workable government’”.
Texas Republican Mike Conaway insisted to reporters that as Bannon isn’t an executive, he is confident that the former Breitbart boss would eventually testify in full. “There were questions that we asked that were not answered and we are going to resolve the issues to get the answers.’’
Congressman Tom Rooney of Florida, speaking to reporters earlier on Tuesday, said that he “certainly thinks the committee respects executive privilege. When does that attach, is the question that dominates the day. Did it come into effect for a president during the transition or actual swearing in”?
The subpoena is reportedly the second that Bannon has received in recent days. The New York Times reported earlier Tuesday that Mueller issued a subpoena last week to compel Bannon to testify before a grand jury in his investigation.
Bannon has come under scrutiny after making inflammatory comments about the Russia investigation in the bestselling book Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff in which he described a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Trump’s son Don Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his campaign manager Paul Manafort and a number of Russians as “treasonous”, “unpatriotic”, and “bad shit”.
Trump’s associates had taken the meeting under the expectation that the Russians had damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, which they wished to share with the campaign team.
In the book by Wolff, Bannon said it was likely that the Russians had met with Donald Trump as well. “The chance that Don Jr did not walk these jumps up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.”
Bannon’s willingness to abide by White House instructions comes after Trump denounced him as “Sloppy Steve” for the comments he made in Wolff’s book. Trump also issued a statement after the book’s publication bashing his former top strategist, suggesting that Bannon had “lost his mind”, and the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, even went so far as to say that Breitbart should “consider” removing him from his position as executive chairman. Within days, Steve Bannon resigned from his post at the conservative website that he apparently built and had molded in his own image.
The Trump administration isn’t a stranger to controversy and this is one that has simply refused to go away.