Steve Bannon goes to trial in first contempt of Congress prosecution
▶ Watch Video: Judge denies former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s attempt to delay trial
Washington – Trump’s one-time campaign head and White House strategist Steve Bannon is set to go on trial Monday in a high-profile and politically-charged case that will thrust all three branches of the federal government into the spotlight.
Bannon is charged with two counts of criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena issued by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The committee demanded that Bannon, who was a private citizen at the time of the panel’s conception last year, sit for a deposition with investigators and hand over documents relevant to the congressional probe.
In October 2021, Bannon rebuffed the committee’s subpoenas, prompting the House of Representatives to refer his noncompliance to the Justice Department, which later brought an indictment against him.
At the time of his refusal, Bannon’s attorney said his client was following the direction of the former president’s legal team to not provide documents or testify due to executive privilege, although several courts have said the former president cannot claim executive privilege once waived by President Biden. Bannon has pleaded not guilty to both counts.
What followed Bannon’s indictment has been a tumultuous legal battle between the defense and prosecutors over which evidence is admissible at trial, unsuccessful attempts by Bannon to postpone the proceedings entirely, and the ongoing televised hearings showcasing the Jan.6 Committee’s evidence during which Bannon himself has been referenced many times.
And just last week, Bannon told the Jan. 6 committee in an about-face that he is willing to testify – but publicly. “While Mr. Bannon has been steadfast in his convictions, circumstances have now changed,” his lawyer wrote in the letter obtained by CBS News. Bannon’s lawyer also said that while former President Donald Trump invoked executive privilege over his testimony and documents, the former president “has decided that it would be in the best interests of the American people to waive executive privilege for” Bannon, allowing him to comply with the subpoena.
Judge Carl Nichols, appointed by Trump to the federal bench, will oversee the trial. Nichols said Thursday he would wait to decide whether Bannon can tell the jury he has now apparently changed his mind about testifying before the committee. Bannon’s legal team has argued such testimony is relevant to his explanation that he was acting under the direction of the former president and did not criminally ignore the subpoena, but prosecutors say the recent change of heart is “irrelevant” to whether Bannon broke the law last year.
In a series of pretrial hearings, Nichols culled through the myriad requests from Bannon’s team and prosecutors alike, ruling on the evidence that will be presented to the jury and the arguments that are banned from his courtroom.
The judge ordered that Bannon cannot make a series of defenses at trial, including a “public authority” argument that Trump’s demand that he ignore the committee’s request neutralizes any illegality.
Bannon’s argument that the House violated its own rules in its operation of Jan. 6 select committee was also dismissed by the judge. Bannon and numerous defendants fighting subpoenas at the civil level have tried to argue in court the committee is invalid. All have so far failed.
His lawyers will be able to argue, however, that Bannon was unaware of the subpoena’s deadline when he did not testify or hand over the requested documents.
But with jury selection set to begin on Monday, the process of finding a group of 12 jurors plus two alternates who could be acceptable to both sides might be the biggest hurdle. Bannon’s defense attorney David Schoen argued that the recent release of audio by Mother Jones could bias prospective jurors. In the recording, Bannon predicted days before the 2020 election that Trump would declare victory on election night, while it would look like he had a lead, since mail-in votes, which were expected to favor Joe Biden, would be counted more slowly in several battleground states.
“What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner,” Bannon told a group of people in the audio published by Mother Jones. “He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.”
Schoen also argued that the Jan. 6 committee hearing last Tuesday — in which Bannon’s infamous “all hell is gonna break loose” statement predicting the events of Jan. 6 was broadcast — would bias jurors unfairly against the defendant.
“Potential jurors in the District of Columbia have been bombarded with coverage of the Select Committee hearing,” Bannon’s team argued in pretrial memos, “It would be impossible to guarantee Mr. Bannon a fair trial in the middle of much-publicized Select Committee hearings which purport to broadcast investigative ‘findings’ on topics that are referenced in the Indictment.”
Because of this so-called potential for bias, Bannon asked the court to delay his trial.
Nevertheless, Judge Nichols sided with prosecutors, ruling that the jury selection process in which Washington, D.C. citizens will field questions on their views of the defendant and his alleged actions would likely ensure a fair process.
Bannon isn’t the only defendant with ties to the Jan. 6 probe to ask for a delay in proceedings due to the ongoing committee hearings. A group of Proud Boys accused of seditious conspiracy successfully petitioned the judge in their case to delay their trial by at least a few months after their alleged leadership role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol took center stage in the first House Select Committee public hearing.
CBS News has learned members of the far-right Oath Keepers group accused of seditious conspiracy also want their trial delayed because of the committee’s media attention.
For his part, Bannon will be the first of two former Trump White House officials to go to trial. Peter Navarro, Trump’s economic adviser, faces similar charges and is set to go to trial in November after rejecting a plea offer from prosecutors.