George Washington’s nightmare is coming true.
Two disparate events this week – Steve Bannon’s willingness to risk criminal contempt of Congress to protect a twice-impeached former President and the GOP’s latest move in the Senate blocking efforts to guarantee the rights of all citizens to vote – are validating the first President’s fear that American democracy would founder on the rocks of partisan extremism.
While the American people are weary of the endless partisan fights bequeathed by Donald Trump’s presidency, they are caught in a seminal moment that will decide how America is governed now and for generations to come.
The Bannon and voting rights cases, which are on a fast boil, underscore how the threat to the US checks and balance system, epitomized by Trump’s election lies and defiance of accountability, is getting worse with every month. And these are not just isolated challenges to the role of Congress and the integrity of the electoral system, but part of a broad and coordinated set of actions that reveal how one of America’s great parties – the GOP – is putting the amassing of power and the need to protect and impress a leader with autocratic ambitions above the basic democratic fundamentals. This is exactly what Washington warned against in his 1796 farewell address and threatens to cause the “ruins of public liberty” in the political system that he so feared.
Republican lawmakers are expected to vote in large numbers on Thursday against a full House effort to hold Bannon, Trump’s former political guru, in criminal contempt for ignoring the House select committee probing the January 6 mob attack on the US Capitol, their very place of work.
Their numbers will not be enough in the Democratic-led chamber to prevent the referral being sent to the Justice Department. But the vote will again expose a party in thrall to an ex-President who disrupted a peaceful transition of power.
Bannon has made a dubious claim that his conversations with Trump around January 6 are protected by law even though he was not a serving official at the time. He is openly acting on the ex-President’s instructions as Trump claims all his contacts in office are covered by executive privilege. The select committee, however, wants to know what Bannon said to Trump before and during the Capitol insurrection. It also suspects he is a key organizer of protests that turned into a mob attack on Congress – after he predicted on his podcast the day before that “all hell is going to break loose.”
It should be no surprise that Bannon is at the center of an attempt to disrupt and clog Washington’s mechanisms for accountability. For most political figures a contempt citation might stain a career, but in the case of this flame-throwing disruptor, it may be seen as the culmination of it.
The former Wall Street investment banker was quick to see Trump as the epitome of his own populist, nationalist ideology and worked as a White House official in the early months of his administration. The ex-President’s inept governance only furthered Bannon’s ambition for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” as it handicapped the regulatory regime he believes liberals use to wield power. But most of all, Bannon likes to watch the elite Washington system metaphorically blow up. So by refusing a subpoena and challenging the authority of Congress itself, he is being true to his long-term political goals, nine months after he was pardoned by Trump in the final hours of his presidency after fraud charges.
The House’s criminal referral of Bannon, if it passes as expected, represents one of the last chances for Congress to guard its constitutional oversight powers in relation to Trump’s attempts to tear down the guardrails protecting US democracy. If the GOP wins the House in midterm elections next year, it is expected to close the probe.
After the chamber votes, it will ultimately be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide whether to open a criminal case against Bannon. The Justice Department chief will face tough questioning from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee on the case on Thursday. His position became more delicate last week after President Joe Biden said people like Bannon who defy subpoenas should face the consequences, although the department quickly insisted that such decisions would be taken independently and not subject to politics.
‘History will judge us’
The House vote on Bannon will come a day after Senate Republicans used the filibuster, a device not mentioned in the Constitution, to prevent passage of a bill that makes it easier for all Americans to vote and harder to steal elections. The bill would have ruled out many of the restrictions on voting put in place by Republican-run states on the basis of Trump’s election lies. It also expands mail-in voting and would make Election Day a public holiday, so as many people as possible can make it to polling places.
Together, the two episodes on either side of the Capitol call into question two basic principles of the American system – the capacity of a separate coequal branch of government to constrain the presidency and the right to suffrage.
And they show how the Republican Party has abdicated its duty to protect those dual pillars of democracy to instead advance its political goals and the interests of an all-powerful individual advancing his own extremist ends.
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, a rare Republican who has turned against her own party in order to offer an accounting of Trump’s corrupt presidency, warned Wednesday that history would judge Congress poorly unless it held Bannon to account.
“In many nations, democracy has failed because those with authority would not act to protect it because they sat in silence,” Cheney, the vice chair of the select committee, said at a hearing on the contempt citation.
“History will judge those of us in positions of public trust. Remember that as you cast your votes. As you think about how you will answer when history asks, ‘What did you do when Congress was attacked?’”
That there is even a question whether a political associate of a President who tried to steal an election and whose supporters weaponized his lies to invade the US Capitol to keep him in power should testify, shows how far the threat to US democracy has evolved and why there is doubt whether it can survive.
Most House Republicans, who have been steadfast in their attempt to protect Trump from accountability for his abuses of power because they need his support to win power, are expected to vote against the Bannon citation.
As is often the case, the ex-President’s supporters accuse his opponents – in this case the select committee – of the very transgressions that they are carrying out: politicizing justice and Congress’ duty to oversee the executive branch.
“This whole commission started off as a very partisan exercise. … You’re seeing most members get tired of the witch hunts and the games,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said on Wednesday.
Democrats and Republicans had, however, agreed on an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection, until party leaders reacted to Trump’s angry rejection of the process and killed it off.
GOP Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, who favored the independent commission, now says that the select committee convening in its place “is a joke and it has been from the beginning.” Several Republicans, however, including some of the 10 who voted to impeach Trump over the Capitol insurrection, say they are undecided on how to vote on Thursday. One of them, Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state, said he is considering his options even as party leaders like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy push for a “no” vote.
“I’m still looking at…whether it’s a proper thing for Congress to be doing,” Newhouse said.
But Trump’s allies are doing their best to further discredit the House committee and to leave Americans with the impression that its investigation is simply the typical over-politicized shenanigans that stain Washington.
Two of them, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida, appeared at a House Rules Committee hearing and fired off combative statements filled with hyper-partisan pro-Trump propaganda.
“This is about setting up people like Steve Bannon and Kevin McCarthy for criminal process,” Gaetz said. “This is another step along the way to criminalize political activity.”
‘The House cannot let this stand’
The chairman of the select committee, Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, said Wednesday that if Bannon succeeded, the fundamental role of Congress itself would be in doubt.
“The House cannot let this stand,” Thompson said. “It would send a signal to Mr Bannon that he can act like he’s above the law and get away with it.”
In its report, the committee rejected Bannon’s executive privilege claims. The resolution holding him in contempt alleges that published reports and his own statements suggest he had “specific knowledge about the events planned for January 6th before they occurred.” It also claims he had multiple roles the investigation needs to know about, including “in constructing and participating in the ‘stop the steal’ public relations effort that motivated the attack.”
According to Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their book “Peril,” Bannon was a key figure in a “war room” at Washington, DC’s, Willard Hotel, that also included Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and that had multiple contacts with the then-President and attempted to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify Biden’s election in Congress.
Several others members of Trump’s inner orbit have been engaging to some extent with the committee, and the committee has postponed scheduled depositions with Mark Meadows, former chief of staff in the Trump White House, and Kash Patel, a former Defense Department official, while negotiations continue. The panel has given the ex-President’s deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino extra time to respond to his subpoenas, after his lawyer said he was not yet ready to cooperate.
The long-winded efforts to enforce testimony – and attempts to stretch out the clock by witnesses like Bannon – mean it remains far from clear whether the panel will hold Trump to account in this potentially final effort.