Intel Dem decries White House ‘gag order’ after Bannon testimony
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday night slammed what he described as a “gag order by the White House” following testimony from President Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, before the panel amid its Russia probe.
Bannon refused to answer questions related to his time in the White House and on the transition team during 10 hours of testimony before the panel, according to lawmakers, cabining his responses to his stint on the campaign.
That limitation was at the request of the White House, ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters when the interview broke on Tuesday evening.
Bannon’s counsel conferred with the White House after the committee issued a subpoena, Schiff said, “and was instructed by the White House to refuse again to answer any questions concerning the time during the transition and his time in the administration.”
“The scope of this assertion of privilege — if that’s what it is — is breathtaking,” Schiff said. “It goes well beyond anything we’ve seen in this investigation. … This was effectively a gag order by the White House.”
The White House in a statement earlier in the day said it is “fully cooperative” with the ongoing investigation without addressing directly whether it had instructed Bannon not to answer certain questions.
“As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
“This is part of a judicially recognized process that goes back decades. We have been fully cooperative with these ongoing investigations and encourage the committees to work with us to find an appropriate accommodation in order to ensure Congress obtains information necessary to its legitimate interests.”
Bannon’s refusal to answer questions drew the ire of lawmakers from both parties — especially, multiple sources told The Hill, after Bannon indicated that he would not place the same restrictions in any testimony he gave to special counsel Robert Mueller.
“He doesn’t have any friends in that room,” one source said shortly prior to the breakup of the interview.
Sources described the meeting as a “total free-for-all” and “brutal.”
The White House also sought to limit Bannon’s testimony on any conversations he had with the president after his departure from the administration in August.
Bannon has since fallen out of favor with the president, at least publicly, after the publication of a controversial book about the Trump White House in which he is quoted as calling a Trump Tower meeting involving the president’s eldest son and a Russian lawyer “treasonous.”
Still, Schiff said, “The witness declined to answer questions based on the instruction of the White House.”
The New York Times revealed earlier on Tuesday that the special counsel has obtained a separate, grand jury subpoena to force testimony from Bannon.
Bannon’s appearance before the committee was voluntary. He did not formally invoke any form of executive privilege, which as a non-administration official, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said, he would not be able to do.
“This witness is not an executive,” said Conaway, who is spearheading the committee’s Russia investigation after Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) recused himself last year. “He’s not in a position to be able to do that.”
The move to issue a subpoena during the middle of an interview is an unusual one for the House panel and is a break from how committee lawmakers have handled other witnesses who have declined to answer certain questions. Democrats have complained bitterly that Republicans have let recalcitrant witnesses off the hook.
“This was the first time that we saw a witness refuse to answer questions on the instruction of the White House or on the claim that the White House might later invoke privilege in which [the majority was] not only unwilling to accept that answer but willing to act with great alacrity to subpoena that witness in real time and insist that he come back,” Schiff said.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who is assisting Conaway in running the committee probe, described the interview as having been complicated by the question of executive privilege.
“I certainly think that when the committee expects an executive privilege, when does that attach is the question that is sort of dominating the day. You know, at what time does it attach? During the transition or during the actual swearing in?” Rooney told reporters.
“If you are part of the White House in any way and you’re talking about things that were during the campaign, but it happens to be in the White House, then what? What’s the answer? So that’s the quandary.”
When the interview finally recessed around 8 p.m., according to Conaway, the subpoena remained in effect.
“The subpoena stays in effect and we’re going to get the answers from Mr. Bannon that we did not get today,” Conaway told reporters.
In the recent book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Bannon told author Michael Wolff that a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer believed to have political dirt on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was “treasonous.”
“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor—with no lawyers,” Bannon said, according to Wolff’s account. “Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic … you should have called the FBI immediately.”
Further, Bannon added, “the chance that [Trump Jr.] did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.”
Lawmakers were expected to press Bannon on what the president knew about that meeting, long a flashpoint in the controversy surrounding the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, as well as any financial crimes that may have been committed.
“Specifically what’s the basis for his assertion that the president met with the participants in the Trump Tower meeting,” Schiff told ABC News’s Pierre Thomas prior to the interview. “What [Bannon] knows about the president’s knowledge of that meeting, as well as his concerns over money laundering which has been a persistent concern of ours as well.”
One source told The Hill that Bannon told lawmakers that “treasonous” was too strongly worded but that he believed the meeting to be unpatriotic.
But the committee’s interest in Bannon predates the release of Wolff’s book, and he was expected to face questions about his knowledge of any other contacts that Trump transition team members may have had with Russian officials.
Schiff cited any conversations Bannon may have had with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Bannon was not a participant in a number of incidents believed to be focal points of the Mueller investigation, including the Trump Tower meeting and Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.
Bannon was, however, reportedly involved in the decision-making behind firing Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators as part of the Mueller probe.
Flynn was dismissed less than a month into the Trump administration after it was revealed that he had misled Vice President Pence and others on the nature of a phone call with the Russian ambassador.
Priebus was linked to one notable incident related to Comey’s dismissal. According to Comey, Trump shooed Priebus from the room before pressing the then-FBI director to “let go” of the Flynn investigation.
Olivia Beavers contributed