Frustrated Dems demand contempt action against Bannon

Frustrated Dems demand contempt action against Bannon
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Democrats say Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are failing to follow up on threats to hold former White House strategist Stephen Bannon in contempt of Congress.

After Bannon refused to answer some committee questions in an interview in early February, infuriated lawmakers issued a bipartisan subpoena and Republicans threatened to hold the former presidential adviser accountable.

Then, in a second appearance two weeks ago, Bannon provided responses to 25 questions scripted by the White House — angering Democrats who say that those constrained answers do not satisfy the subpoena, which technically remains on the table. 

“They’ve said they would insist on Bannon, and yet they have not done so. They were very quick to pursue contempt proceedings regarding Fusion bank, but have not moved with anywhere near the same alacrity with Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonJuan Williams: The new abnormal Catholic cardinal says Steve Bannon using monastery for political purposes How Russia exploited Trump's messy presidential transition MORE,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffKey House committee obtains subpoenaed Trump financial documents from two banks: report Judge delivers second blow to Trump over financial records Schiff goes after Barr: He lacks Giuliani's 'good looks and general likability' MORE (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat, told reporters Tuesday night.

Although Republicans appeared frustrated by Bannon’s testimony — Rep. Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayOn The Money: House chairman issues subpoenas for Trump's tax returns | Trump touts trade talks as China, US fail to reach deal | Five things to know about Trump's trade war with China | GOP offers support for Trump on tariffs GOP offers support for Trump on China tariffs On The Money: New tariffs on China pose major risk for Trump | Senators sound alarm over looming budget battles | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders team up against payday lenders MORE (R-Texas), who is leading the committee's Russia probe, told reporters that “we have further steps to take, and we’ll be taking them”— they appear in little hurry to initiate proceedings.

Conaway told reporters Tuesday that there was "no change" in the status of internal negotiations over a possible contempt charge and that he did not know when he would speak to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.), who will make the final decision.

It’s a far cry from the reaction after Bannon’s first appearances, when Republicans floated the contempt resolution and warned that failing to act against him would risk eroding the subpoena power of every committee in Congress.

“If you don’t, what kind of precedent is that sending? For not just our committee, but every committee,” Rep. Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons MORE (R-Fla.), a senior member of the House Intelligence panel, said the day before the second Bannon meeting. “They don’t mean anything, just a hollow threat. We can’t do that.”

But the move to enforce a subpoena is ultimately a discretionary one. 

Typically, the full House first approves a contempt of Congress citation. The Speaker then certifies the citation to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution.

The Senate certified a criminal contempt charge against Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEric Holder: 'There are grounds for impeachment' in Mueller report Prosecutor appointed by Barr poised to enter Washington firestorm Dems struggle to make Trump bend on probes MORE during President Obama’s second term, but the U.S. attorney refused to bring it before the grand jury. Most recently, Justice declined to act after the House approved a criminal contempt resolution against IRS official Lois Lerner in 2014. 

At issue is whether Bannon can claim some subjects are off the table at the request of the White House, in order to vouchsafe the president’s ability to assert executive privilege in the future.

The doctrinal power exists to allow an administration to keep private some internal discussions so that there can be candid deliberation about policy. 

Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, served on the presidential transition team and was a White House adviser before resigning in August.

Lawmakers say Bannon’s claim is an effective assertion of power that he, as a private citizen, does not have the right to invoke — particularly for the period of time before Trump took office.

But the White House ahead of Bannon’s second interview sent a letter arguing that the transition period falls under the president’s authority to claim privilege. 

Schiff said such a privilege has never been held to apply to a presidential transition before. 

Since Bannon’s appearance, other former and current Trump campaign officials have tried to claim a similar form of privilege without formally invoking it, aggravating Democrats who say that the majority is playing by one set of rules for Bannon and another for other officials. 

Communications director Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Trump defends denying McGahn's testimony House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment MORE, who appeared for over nine hours on Tuesday, also declined to answer some questions related to the transition period and after Inauguration. Democrats quickly called for her to be subpoenaed. 

“This double standard is inexplicable,” Schiff said in a statement on Wednesday.

Republicans say Hicks presents a completely different case from Bannon, because she ultimately answered some questions about the transition — specifically, those that mirrored testimony she had already given to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I think she’s been very forthright and open to all the questions that we’ve had,” Rooney said after the interview with Hicks concluded.

“Mr. Bannon was claiming a privilege based on the transition that we were asking what the privilege was and we weren’t comfortable that there was such a privilege. Ever since she has decided to answer questions based on that transition, she can’t be compared to Bannon.”