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Justice Department charges Steve Bannon with criminal contempt of Congress

Steve Bannon, once former President Donald Trump's chief strategist, is pictured in August 2018. The Justice Department has charged him with criminal contempt of Congress.
Steve Bannon, once former President Donald Trump's chief strategist, is pictured in August 2018. The Justice Department has charged him with criminal contempt of Congress.

Updated November 12, 2021 at 5:46 PM ET

Steve Bannon has been charged with contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the legislative committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol siege.

Bannon, who was a political adviser to then-President Donald Trump, is charged with one count for failing to appear for a deposition and another for refusing to hand over documents.

The Justice Department's move exposes Bannon to fines and as much as a year of jail time for each count. It follows weeks of deliberation by prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, who will oversee the criminal case.

"Since my first day in office, I have promised Justice Department employees that together we would show the American people by word and deed that the department adheres to the rule of law, follows the facts and the law and pursues equal justice under the law," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "Today's charges reflect the department's steadfast commitment to these principles."

A Justice Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Bannon is expected to surrender Monday and appear in court that afternoon.

Bannon refused to cooperate with the House panel investigating the storming of the Capitol, arguing he was covered under an assertion of executive privilege by Trump.

But legal experts said that claim lacked merit because Bannon is a private citizen who had not worked inside the White House for years — and because the current president, Joe Biden, had waived privilege on several matters before the House committee.

Bannon not only declined to share documents, but he also refused to show up for testimony with the committee. The House voted to approve a criminal contempt referral for him last month.

Implications for the select committee's work

Defense attorneys in Washington had been expecting the Justice Department to draw a line with Bannon. Indeed, a decision not to proceed against Bannon could have spurred others to decline to cooperate and could have short-circuited the entire House investigation.

The chair of the select committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has signed dozens of subpoenas in recent weeks for people in and outside the Trump administration.

"Steve Bannon's indictment should send a clear message to anyone who thinks they can ignore the Select Committee or try to stonewall our investigation: no one is above the law," said Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in a statement. "We will not hesitate to use the tools at our disposal to get the information we need."

The panel appears to be proceeding along multiple tracks: knocking at the doors of Trump's inner circle in the White House, as well as those who attended meetings at the Willard hotel and elsewhere leading up to Jan. 6.

The conundrum of Bannon in particular

Scholars who study the issue of executive privilege said the decision about Bannon is more complex than the public may appreciate.

Jonathan Shaub, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, pointed out in a recent post on the Lawfare website that the Justice Department has frequently declined to prosecute government officials for contempt after the president decides to assert executive privilege — and it's not clear how persuasive an assertion by a former president would be in the courts.

Garland had asserted any decision about Bannon would be made based on the facts and the law — not politics.

But that became complicated, too, after Biden told reporters he thought people who defied the Jan. 6 committee should face prosecution.

A spokesman for the Justice Department, Anthony Coley, said the department would "make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions. ... Period. Full stop."

Bannon's complicated ties to the White House

Bannon, 67, has had other recent brushes with the law. In the waning hours of Trump's presidency this year, Trump pardoned Bannon, allowing him to avoid trial after federal prosecutors in New York accused him of defrauding people who donated to build a wall along the United States' southern border.

"Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen," Trump's press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said at the time.

Bannon fell out of favor with Trump in 2017, leading to his ouster as a top strategist in the White House. But the two mended relations, at least somewhat, and by January, Bannon was touting the rally in Washington on his War Room podcast.

"All hell is going to break loose tomorrow," Bannon told his audience on Jan. 5, only hours before the storming of the Capitol.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 11, 2021 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Jonathan Shaub's last name as Schaub.