Steve Bannon told the House Intelligence Committee that he had been instructed by the White House to invoke executive privilege on behalf of President Donald Trump, declining to answer a wide array of key questions pertinent to the Russia investigation and prompting lawmakers to consider holding him in contempt.
GOP Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California said Thursday that the only questions Bannon would answer were 25 authorized by the White House. The President’s former chief strategist answered “no” to all of them, they said.
The committee is weighing whether to hold Bannon in contempt. Conaway said he hasn’t spoken to House Speaker Paul Ryan yet but will meet with him about the next steps.
The questions Bannon avoided covered a range of topics about what happened after the 2016 campaign season, prompting pushback from lawmakers from both parties.
“The breadth of that claim of executive privilege is breathtaking and insupportable and indeed, at times, it was laughable,” Schiff, the top Democrat on the panel, told reporters Thursday.
Bannon would not discuss matters after the campaign, his time at the White House or even conversations he had with certain individuals after he left the administration last August, the lawmakers said.
The move comes as the White House has taken extraordinary steps to limit Bannon’s testimony to Congress, taking a far more aggressive posture toward the President’s former close confidant than any other witness who has come before Congress.
After the meeting, which lasted less than three hours, Conaway said he would discuss how to proceed with Ryan and House lawyers about the scope of executive privilege sought by the White House. He declined to say whether Bannon should be held in contempt of Congress, a process that could lead to months of legal wrangling.
“I think he should answer our questions,” Conaway, who runs the panel’s Russia investigation, said Thursday.
The White House sent a letter to Capitol Hill late Wednesday laying out its explanation for why Trump’s transition period falls under its authority to assert executive privilege, a move intended to shield Bannon from answering questions about that time period, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
In the letter, the White House argued to the Hill that because “some of the same factors are implicated in terms of the President needing to have candid advice of others during the transition that a privilege that has never been held to apply during the transition should be held to apply,” according to Schiff.
The dispute now is for the White House and House panel to resolve, a person close to Bannon said Thursday.
House members from both parties have so far rejected that broad interpretation of executive privilege, raising the stakes for Bannon’s standoff with Congress.
Bannon took a similar tack in his first appearance before the panel last month, infuriating lawmakers in a contentious and marathon session where he engaged in testy exchanges with both sides and refused to answer questions about matters after the 2016 campaign. The panel issued a subpoena to compel him to answer questions, but that did little to convince him to talk. Instead, he pushed back his return to the committee on three separate occasions until his Thursday appearance, and committee members were uncertain he’d appear until he arrived just minutes before the hearing began.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and member of House Intelligence Committee who led his side’s questioning, said Thursday that “I’m not OK with” Bannon refusing to answer questions about topics during the transition period.
Bannon is one of several key Trump associates whose testimony has been delayed before the House panel. The others include White House communications director Hope Hicks as well as Corey Lewandowski, the President’s former campaign manager, who told the panel in his testimony last month that he wasn’t prepared to answer questions about matters after he was dismissed from the campaign in June 2016. While Democrats have demanded Lewandowski be hit with a subpoena to reappear before the panel to answer more questions, Republicans have resisted.
“I don’t think he needs to be subpoenaed,” Florida’s GOP Rep. Tom Rooney, a key member of the panel, said of Lewandowski. “I think he came in and answered eight hours’ worth of questions based on the letter we sent him and his employment with the Trump Organization and Trump campaign. … We did not ask him to come in to answer questions about his time as a private citizen – so I think that’s clearly a difference between him and Steve Bannon.”
Indeed, Republicans – who have long detested Bannon over the attacks he’s waged against them over the years – have joined Democrats in expressing anger over his refusal to answer questions.
Bannon’s decision not to talk about those periods with Congress has come as his team has indicated his willingness to answer any questions that special counsel Robert Mueller may have, a stance that has further annoyed lawmakers in both parties.
But Democrats charge that Conaway and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, haven’t shown a willingness yet to hold Bannon accountable for flouting Congress if he ignores the subpoena. Conaway said, however, that Nunes has no role in determining next steps on the Bannon matter.
“If they don’t force him to answer legitimate questions, they will be ceding Congress’ authority, and we’ll be setting a very, very dangerous precedent that people can just tell Congress what they will and will not answer, and will show no resolve to use our subpoena power to get to the bottom of what’s going on,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat.