As Russia probes progress, one name is missing: Bannon’s
As special Russia counsel Robert Mueller wraps up interviews with senior current and former White House staff, one name has been conspicuously absent from public chatter surrounding the probe: Steve Bannon.
President Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist and campaign chief executive played critical roles in episodes that have become central to Mueller’s probe as well as to multiple Hill investigations.
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Bannon was a key bystander when Trump decided to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with foreign officials. He was among those Trump consulted before firing FBI Director James Comey, whose dismissal prompted Mueller’s appointment — a decision Bannon subsequently described to “60 Minutes” as the biggest mistake “in modern political history.”
And during the campaign, Bannon was the one who offered the introduction to data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, whose CEO has since acknowledged trying to coordinate with WikiLeaks on the release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state.
Yet Bannon hasn’t faced anywhere near the degree of public scrutiny in connection to the probe as others in Trump’s inner circle, including son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner — who was recently interviewed by Mueller’s team — or Donald Trump Jr., who was interviewed on Capitol Hill last week about his own Russian connections.
People close to Bannon, who left the White House in August and returned to his former perch as head of Breitbart News, say he’s told them he doesn’t have a lawyer and isn’t worried about potential exposure. But others say it’s inevitable he’ll be called in as a witness in the ongoing investigations. He has not been publicly accused of any wrongdoing or named as a target of the investigations.
Congressional investigators say he’s already on their list.
“I think it’ll be very important at an appropriate time to bring him before the committee,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel’s Russia probe, told POLITICO. “There are a whole range of issues we need to talk to him about.”
Mueller’s office declined comment for this story, but former Trump aides say they have no doubt Bannon will be questioned by Mueller. Given the black box the special counsel operates in, it’s possible Bannon has already spoken with the prosecutors.
“That in my mind is an unequivocal yes,” said a former Trump staffer familiar with the case. “It’d be malpractice not to interview him.”
Former Trump legal team spokesman Mark Corallo said he also expects Mueller to bring Bannon in as a witness. “There’s going to be a lot of people to be called in to discuss what happened in the Comey firing. I would not be shocked if someone like Steve got pulled in. That would be normal,” he said.
Bannon declined comment for this story.
Investigators have already interviewed more than a dozen White House staffers, including Reince Priebus and presidential spokesman Sean Spicer. Late last week, Mueller interviewed White House communications director and former campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks — another person who was almost omnipresent in the campaign and the early days of the administration, according to a person familiar with the Mueller probe.
A person close to Bannon said that as of Sunday the strategist hadn’t been interviewed by Mueller. But that shouldn’t be surprising, said William Jeffress, a white-collar defense attorney who represented Vice President Dick Cheney’s senior aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby during the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation. “Generally speaking, you’d expect they’d be more working from the bottom up,” he said. “It’s inevitable that they will.”
The former White House strategist is uniquely positioned to fill in some of the blanks on the president’s reactions and motivations as the Russia scandal unfolded, said former Justice Department prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg.
“Post-election, there’s a story every day about some other bombshell, and Bannon would have had a conversation with Trump about it,” said Zeidenberg, who served on the special counsel team during the George W. Bush-era Plame investigation.
“It doesn’t mean he’s violated any law, but there’s no way this investigation gets done without him being interviewed thoroughly,” Zeidenberg added. “Zero percent chance.”
Bannon’s name has surfaced a handful of times in the special counsel and congressional investigations, most recently last week in a letter sent to former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.