Bannon refuses to answer questions not pre-approved by the White House
Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon would only answer questions pre-approved by the White House during an interview Thursday with the House Intelligence Committee, lawmakers said.
Members from both parties were fuming after the interview, which lasted roughly three hours, saying Bannon had refused to answer any questions that touched on his work for President Trump after the 2016 election.
“The only questions he would answer were questions that had been scripted, literally scripted, for him by the White House. A set of 25 questions that had been written out for him to which the answer to each must be ‘no,'” said Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the panel’s ranking Democrat.
Bannon invoked executive privilege when asked questions that extended beyond his list, an assertion the committee does not believe he has the grounds to make, the lawmakers said.
“There is no plausible claim of privilege that could apply to those circumstances,” Schiff added.
“The breadth of that claim is breathtaking and insupportable, and indeed, at times, it was laughable.”
Rep. Mike Conaway (Texas), the senior Republican leading the probe into Russian election inteference, said the committee is planning to examine what further steps the committee can take to compel the former chief strategist to provide answers.
“He did not answer all the questions we’d like answered so there is frustration among the committee members with respect to that,” Conaway said.
“We have further steps to take and we will be taking those.”
When asked whether committee plans to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress, Conaway said the decision extends to others like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“Contempt is a big deal, and I don’t have unilateral control over that conversation,” he said.
Schiff, meanwhile, directly called for Bannon to be held in contempt of Congress.
“In terms of next steps I think the next steps for the Congress to take is to initiate contempt proceedings,” Schiff said, adding that Bannon was given a chance to say why he should not be held in contempt.
“We cannot permit a situation where the White House is allowed to script self-serving and misleading questions and provide it to a witness and effectively coach his testimony in a very narrow and misleading way,” he said.
The California lawmaker said Bannon’s questions were intentionally scripted to be misleading. When Bannon was asked whether he “met” with an individual, he would say “no.” But when asked whether he had any communications with that same person, he would respond “yes” but then assert executive privilege.
“That is not how privilege works; that’s how stonewalling works,” Schiff said.
Bannon arrived for his second interview before the committee after a fierce weeks-long tug-of-war over what question would be allowed.
The committee subpoenaed Bannon in January after he initially declined to answer lawmakers’ questions during his first closed-door interview with the panel.
Throughout the week, questions swirled over whether Republicans on the committee would move to enforce the subpoena against Bannon if he refused to answer their questions, or if he simply failed to show up.
The White House sent a letter to the committee Wednesday evening before making its case why Trump’s transition period does fall under the administration’s authority to assert executive privilege.
Updated at 2:55 p.m.