Republican lawmakers fumed at Steve Bannon Wednesday, and some threatened to hold the former Trump White House strategist in contempt of Congress a day after he stonewalled the House’s Russia investigation.
In the latest political battle for the deposed Brietbart News chief, House Republicans showed little patience with a political agitator who has often denounced them as Washington insiders—and who, according to one GOP lawmaker, even suggested Wednesday that their Russia inquiries serve a larger effort to delegitimize his former boss, President Donald Trump.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he might support a contempt citation for Bannon if he continues to buck questions on Russian election interference.
“I have contempt for Bannon anyway,” King said.
Bannon made clear to Congressional investigators Tuesday that the sentiment runs both ways. During a contentious, daylong appearance before the House intelligence panel, Bannon told committee members that their inquiry amounts to an effort “to decertify the last election,” according to Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), one of three Republicans managing the committee’s Russia probe.
In an unlikely moment of bipartisanship, Bannon infuriated both Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday by refusing to answer their questions about Russia-related events following Trump’s election. Bannon said he was complying with a White House claim of executive privilege—which shields White House communications from legislative branch scrutiny— and maintained his silence even after the committee subpoenaed him on the spot.
Appearing on Fox News Wednesday night, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Bannon had invoked a version of executive privilege “that doesn’t exist and that no one’s ever heard of before.”
Some House Intelligence Committee members said Wednesday they want Bannon to return Thursday for more questioning — although others doubted he would comply.
The showdown with Congress contrasts with Bannon’s reported plan to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who issued a grand jury subpoena to compel Bannon's testimony earlier this week.
Bannon, who joined Trump’s campaign in the summer of 2016—and was ousted from the White House in August—has made conflicting statements about charges that Trump associates colluded with Russians. He has both dismissed the idea as a partisan smear, and also called a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians attended by Trump’s son, Don Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort “treasonous.”
Adding to the notion that political resentment toward Bannon among Republicans was fueling the drama, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared before the same committee Wednesday and similarly refused to answer certain questions — only to escape an immediate subpoena.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), said he proposed issuing Lewandowski a subpoena, but that his GOP colleagues declined.
Gowdy told Fox Wednesday evening that it was “not [Lewandowski’s fault” that he did not answer some questions, saying the former Trump aide’s lawyer had been the one to limit the conversation. Gowdy added that he expects Lewandowski to “come back and answer every question that everyone has.”
And another House Intelligence Committee interview Wednesday, of White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, was apparently free of contention, suggesting that the White House has not begun making blanket demands of executive privilege for all its current and former aides as some lawmakers briefly feared.
Rooney said he'd "have to consider" whether a contempt citation was appropriate if Bannon continues to stymie the committee's inquiries. He added that he thinks Bannon is using the committee as a platform to signal his allegiance to Trump, who angrily denounced Bannon as “Sloppy Steve” after Bannon was quoted in an explosive new book by Michael Wolff making derogatory comments about Trump's family and about the Trump Tower meeting.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Russia probe, said he wouldn't discuss whether he might seek a contempt citation for Bannon, but he noted the subpoena on Bannon "is still in place."
"We are working to get Mr. Bannon back to answer our questions," he said. When asked whether he believes the White House is interfering with the House investigation, Conaway sidestepped the question.
"We’re going to get the answers to our questions and move forward," he said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday the White House was merely insisting upon a decades-old practice of coordinating testimony of former officials to prevent any breaches of executive privilege.
"There is a process that you go through any time you have congressional inquiries touching upon White House," she said at Wednesday's daily press briefing. "The Congress should consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material."
Asked whether Bannon might have information that the White House is afraid of him sharing with the committee, Sanders said, "Not that I'm aware of ... There was absolutely no collusion, but in terms of, you know, what he might say, I can't answer that."
But in a seeming contradiction that heightened confusion about Bannon’s testimony, White House chief of staff John Kelly told Fox News on Wednesday that the White House had not instructed the former West Wing aide to invoke executive privilege.
"No," Kelly told host Brett Baier, adding: "Steve has had very, very little contact with the White House since he left. ... With the exception of a few phone calls here and there, very, very little contact with the White House."
Legal experts were divided on Bannon’s tussle with Capitol Hill, suggesting the White House has legitimate interests in preserving executive privilege. But they noted that the White House hasn’t formally asserted executive privilege, apparently instructing Bannon to cite the open-ended “potential” of a breach.
“If the President is asserting executive privilege, he must formally do so. Otherwise, there is at least the appearance that the White House is obstructing the congressional inquiry,” said Barbara McQuade, a former Obama-appointed U.S attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
“Privilege would arguably apply only to communications with the President between Jan. 20 and the time that Bannon was fired,” she continued. “Even then, privilege is not absolute and could be litigated.”
In another sign of personal pique toward Bannon, Gowdy noted Bannon’s frequent conversations with reporters. Bannon was a key source for Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury.”
"And I am really frustrated when witnesses have all the time in the world to talk to the media on- and off-the-record and they can help people write books, but they can't talk to the representatives that are elected by their fellow citizens," Gowdy told Fox News.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the episode seems to have kindled a brief alliance between House intelligence committee Republicans and Democrats, who have spent the last year warring as their Russia probe has at times teetered on the bring of permanent dysfunction.
Conaway fielded questions from reporters Wednesday afternoon in a Capitol elevator bank where Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), another committee member, happened to be waiting. Asked if the committee's decision to subpoena Bannon marked the start of a new template of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, Conaway demurred.
"It was bipartisan," he said of the Bannon subpoena.
"It was bipartisan," echoed Swalwell, as the elevators doors closed and the two men shared a ride.
Darren Samuelsohn contributed reporting.