House Republicans seethe at tight-lipped Bannon
Republican lawmakers fumed at Steve Bannon on 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.
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Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he might support a contempt citation for Bannon if the former Trump adviser 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 after 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 on 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 dismissed the idea as a partisan smear, but 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 on 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, with 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 his former strategist 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 of 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. 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.