- Special counsel Robert Mueller on Tuesday subpoenaed former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon to appear before a grand jury as part of the Russia investigation.
- News of the subpoena came on the same day Bannon testified before the House Intelligence Committee about what he witnessed when he worked on the Trump campaign between August and November 2016.
- Bannon was a central figure in the latter part of the campaign, and in the beginning months of the Trump presidency.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.
News of the subpoena came on the same day Bannon testified, in a closed-door hearing, before investigators on the House Intelligence Committee who are scrutinizing Russia’s involvement in the election.
Bannon was one of President Donald Trump’s top advisers during the transition period and in the White House. In addition to serving as chief strategist, he also had a seat on the National Security Council.
Rumors have swirled that Bannon, while in the White House, was responsible for some of the most damaging leaks about Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, including one about Kushner’s meeting in December 2016 with the CEO of a sanctioned Russian bank.
Bannon was also highly critical of a meeting that Kushner, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., took with two Russian lobbyists in June 2016.
According to author Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Bannon called the meeting “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.”
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad s—, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” Bannon said.
He later clarified that he was primarily criticizing Manafort, who he said should have known better than to meet with the Russians at the height of the campaign.
He added that there was “zero” chance that Trump Jr. did not introduce the lobbyists to Trump.
Trump and his lawyers have denied any knowledge of the meeting. But the president attracted scrutiny last summer when The Washington Post reported that he “dictated” an initially misleading statement that Trump Jr. released in response to reports about the Trump Tower meeting.
The statement had to be amended several times after it emerged that Trump Jr. took the meeting after he was offered compromising information on then Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Bannon was also one of the officials Trump Jr. emailed about his repeated contacts with WikiLeaks in September 2016, according to documents obtained by The Atlantic.
- REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Mueller could be throwing Bannon a bone
Legal experts said Mueller could have subpoenaed Bannon in an effort to negotiate an informal interview.
A more likely explanation, however, is that Mueller wants to get Bannon to testify under oath in front of a grand jury and without his attorney present, said former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer, who is now the managing director at Berkeley Research Group.
Longtime former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti agreed. In the event that Bannon testifies before a grand jury, without his attorney present, “it will be easier to catch Bannon off-guard and receive truthful answers,” Mariotti wrote on Twitter. “Testifying before a grand jury is intimidating.”
Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert on criminal law, acknowledged that Mueller could be using the subpoena as a negotiating tactic but added that “a more intriguing possibility” was that “Bannon wants to testify but is afraid of appearing too eager.”
Bannon was ousted from the White House last August but was still in frequent contact with Trump and his allies.
But their relationship devolved in recent weeks, after Bannon was quoted eviscerating Trump, his family, and his close allies in “Fire & Fury.”
Trump hit back with characteristic fervor, calling Bannon “Sloppy Steve” and saying he had “lost his mind” and was “only in it for himself.”
“Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book,” Trump later added on Twitter. “He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job.”
Bannon did not deny making the comments about Trump and his loyalists, but he issued a lengthy apology as the president ramped up his attacks. Shortly after, when he began losing support from conservative donors and Trump backers, Bannon stepped down from his perch atop the far-right website Breitbart News.
Bannon has “learned the hard way that opposing Trump will be met with charges of disloyalty from their combined base,” Ohlin said. “In light of this, Bannon might have told Mueller: I’ll testify, but only if you subpoena me.”
William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Department of Justice, pointed out that Mueller may be focusing on Bannon to get him to testify against other vulnerable members of Trump’s inner circle, like senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Kushner and Bannon were frequently at odds when Bannon worked in the West Wing, with Kushner’s more moderate leanings often clashing with Bannon’s hardline nationalist views.
If Mueller is aiming for Bannon to give him information about Kushner, Yeomans said, it may help explain why the special counsel is taking a different approach to questioning the former chief strategist.
The Russia investigation has picked up steam in recent weeks, and Trump’s personal defense lawyers are negotiating with Mueller about the terms and conditions of an interview with Trump.
“The investigation seems to be at a point where they are down to the short straws,” Cramer said. “Mueller is now talking to those closest to the president with an eye towards ultimately interviewing Trump.”
Matthew Miller, a former Department of Justice spokesman, tweeted Wednesday that it would be important to scope out “where Bannon’s loyalty lies now. Publicly trashing him as harshly as he did may be a decision Trump comes to regret.”
“If I were in the Trump inner circle, I would be very nervous,” Yeomans said. “Bannon was there for many of the most controversial moments and he has already burned some bridges, making him more likely to speak critically of others.”