The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) decision to prosecute Stephen Bannon for defying a congressional subpoena could give needed leverage to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as it seeks to wrangle interviews with uncooperative aides to former President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE.
Bannon, a former White House strategist, turned himself in to law enforcement and pleaded not guilty this week after a federal grand jury indicted him on two counts of contempt of Congress.
While Bannon is pledging to fight the case as a way to protect Trump’s assertion of executive privilege, the looming penalty of two years in jail and up to $200,000 in fines could be persuasive for a number of former aides who have yet to sit down for their depositions.
“The most important thing was that the Justice Department moved forward with prosecuting Bannon because I think that will have the most profound impact on people's willingness to cooperate and follow the law, seeing that the rule of law is back and applies equally to everyone,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffJan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to omicron variant MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the committee, told reporters Thursday.
“I think it has certainly had an impact on people's willingness to cooperate, people's willingness to follow the law. I can’t itemize that for you,” he said, adding, “Certainly there are others who I think have been encouraged to cooperate by seeing that the path of destruction may lead to jail.”
The indictment surprised some who were unsure if the DOJ would be willing to back a House investigation so focused on Trump’s circle amid an effort to reassert its independence.
But it spells potential trouble for former White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsJan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote Raffensperger talks with Jan. 6 committee about call with Trump: AJC The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden favors vaccines, masks over lockdowns as omicron nears MORE, who is the latest target of the committee following his failure to appear for a deposition demanded earlier this month after he was said to be “engaging” with the committee since he was first subpoenaed in September.
Others subpoenaed the same day as Meadows, such as Trump communications guru Dan Scavino and former Defense Department chief of staff Kash Patel, have also yet to sit to testify.
And the committee last week sent a wave of subpoenas to another 10 former White House aides and high-ranking government officials.
Bannon’s case is progressing as Trump’s challenge to the Biden administration's release of his presidential records to the committee hit an early snag in court.
A federal district judge sided with the committee's assertion that the power to withhold documents and testimony from Congress largely lies with the sitting president, with Judge Tanya Chutkan writing of Trump that “presidents are not kings and plaintiff is not president.” Her decision to permit the release of the records has been blocked by a higher court while the matter is under appeal.
Bannon has largely sought to portray himself as a martyr even as legal experts warn a victory is his case is hardly assured given that he was not even a White House employee at the time in question, making an executive privilege claim more complex.
“Not just Trump people and not just conservatives — every progressive, every liberal in this country that likes freedom of speech and liberty should be fighting for this case. That's why I'm here today: for everybody. I'm never going to back down,” Bannon said earlier this week.
Still, even as Meadows’s attorney sent a letter this week saying his involvement would hinge on legal disputes that must be “appropriately resolved by courts,” Trump’s former chief of staff struck a more conciliatory tone in a rare TV appearance Monday.
“He's exerted, and rightfully so, his executive privilege. And it's not up to me to waive it. And so it's got me between a rock and a hard space,” Meadows said of Trump.
“I want to make sure that I refrain from commenting too much on the facts of the matter. These are complex legal matters that I'm going to let the attorneys hopefully work out in a spirit of accommodation,” he added later.
The committee has not yet decided how to deal with Meadows, warning his defiance “will force the Select Committee to consider pursuing contempt or other proceedings to enforce the subpoena.”
But Brad Moss, a national security law expert, said much of how other former Trump aides respond could depend on how Meadows decides to proceed.
“The Bannon indictment made clear both the committee and DOJ weren’t messing around with their willingness to prosecute those who brazenly defy subpoenas. The real threshold will be if a former Government official who was still working for the government at the time, such as Meadows, is indicted for categorical refusals to comply,” he told The Hill by email.
“If DOJ crosses that proverbial Rubicon, you could see a wave of less senior officials who lack major fundraising abilities looking to cooperate rather than put themselves at risk,” he added.
That could include Jeffrey Clark, a former midlevel attorney at the Department of Justice whom the president considered installing as attorney general as a way to have an ally forward his efforts to unwind state election results. Clark showed up for a deposition earlier this month but was said to be uncooperative and failed to reappear in the afternoon.
Like Meadows, he is facing a potential referral for criminal prosecution by the very department where he once worked, with the committee warning of “strong measures to hold him accountable to meet his obligation.”
The committee has stressed that many are cooperating with their investigators, who have now sat down with more than 200 witnesses and received nearly 25,000 documents.
“There might be some people who want to go down the road of just being in absolute defiance of a subpoena and not participating, but I think the vast majority of them will understand they have a legal duty, they have a civic obligation to participate,” Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinHouse progressives urge Garland to intervene in ex-environmental lawyer Steven Donziger's case Trump allies leaning on his executive privilege claims Oversight panel eyes excessive bail, jail overcrowding in New York City MORE (D-Md.), who sits on the committee, told reporters this week.
“Most people continue to be very cooperative. Most people are coming and voluntarily interviewing with the committee or testifying before the committee. And, you know, for us, it's not a game. ... We've already demonstrated our seriousness by referring criminal contempt charges in the case of Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonJan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote Meadows reaches initial cooperation deal with Jan. 6 committee Jan. 6 panel plans vote to censure Trump DOJ official Clark MORE, and the Department of Justice is definitely back in action,” he said.
“And the grand jury, they handed down an indictment. So we hope that that will send the message to everybody that no one is going to operate with impunity here and in contempt of the law,” he added.