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Prosecution rests its case in Steve Bannon trial

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon arrives at the U.S. District Court House as his trial for contempt of Congress continues on Wednesday.
Stefani Reynolds
/
AFP via Getty Images
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon arrives at the U.S. District Court House as his trial for contempt of Congress continues on Wednesday.

Updated July 20, 2022 at 5:23 PM ET

The prosecution against former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon inched toward a conclusion Wednesday after the Justice Department presented evidence that Bannon flouted multiple warnings that he risked criminal charges for defying a subpoena and rested its case.

Outside the courthouse afterwards, Bannon spoke briefly to reporters. He asked why Jan. 6 committee Chairman Bennie Thompson wasn't present to defend his committee, which he called a "show trial." Bannon did not answer questions about whether he would call witnesses or testify in his own defense.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Vaughn told jurors Bannon "thumbed his nose" at the government and acted as if the laws didn't apply to him when he flouted a subpoena from the House select committee probing the assault on the U.S. Capitol last year.

Kristin Amerling, the deputy staff director of the committee, said members wanted to know about Bannon's contacts with former President Donald Trump and other people advancing bogus claims of fraud in the 2020 election. Lawmakers also wondered about possible "advance knowledge" of the Capitol attack after Bannon proclaimed "all hell is going to break loose" on his podcast one day before the siege, she testified.

The outlines of Bannon's defense, including whether he will testify, remain somewhat murky. In opening statements, Bannon attorney Evan Corcoran cast the case as infused with politics.

Prosecutors raised objections Wednesday outside the presence of the jury, arguing that was an impermissible effort to turn the case into a "political circus."

"I do not intend for this to become a political case, a political circus, a forum for partisan politics," U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols said.

The issues are fairly straightforward: whether Bannon received a subpoena from the House select committee; whether the subpoena sought information pertinent to its authorized investigation; whether Bannon failed or refused to comply; and whether that failure was willful.

The jury of nine men and five women appeared attentive throughout the long day of testimony. After the judge said they could remove their masks, no one did, according to a pool reporter inside the sixth-floor courtroom. By contrast, Bannon immediately took off his black face mask.

The first government witness, a senior staff member on the House select committee, walked jurors through the panel's correspondence with a Bannon attorney last autumn. The committee never received documents or testimony from Bannon, Amerling testified.

"Did the committee get anything other than radio silence by 10 o'clock in the morning on October 7th?" asked prosecutor Vaughn. "No," Amerling replied.

Bannon's lawyer Corcoran said she had worked for Democrats and made political donations to Democratic political candidates, and that she participated in a book group where most of the members had once worked for former California Rep. Henry Waxman.

"Do you ever discuss the political topics of the day?" Corcoran asked.

"To the best of my recollection ... the conversations cover a whole variety of topics. We try to start with the book and then it goes from there," Amerling said. "It's not unusual that we would talk about politics in some way or another."

The testimony was the first time in more than 20 years on Capitol Hill that Amerling had testified in a criminal trial over contempt of Congress.

"Well sir, it's very unusual for witnesses who receive subpoenas to say outright they will not comply," Amerling said.

In cross examination, Corcoran also highlighted that Amerling had signed paperwork about the subpoena before it had actually been served on Bannon's attorney. Amerling resisted efforts by the defense team to characterize the deadlines for complying as flexible.

"Do you believe finding out what happened on January 6 is a political or partisan issue?" prosecutor Vaughn asked.

"No, I do not," Amerling replied.

The prosecution's second witness, FBI Special Agent Stephen Hart, testified briefly about verified posts by Bannon on the Gettr social media site after the deadline had passed for Bannon to turn over documents to Congress, in an apparent attempt by prosecutors to underscore that Bannon willfully defied the demand from Congress.

Prosecutors rested their case shortly before 5 p.m. ET, and the judge said both sides would meet mid-morning on Thursday to discuss legal arguments and next steps.

The House select committee is scheduled to hold its final public hearing of the summer Thursday, focused on what Trump was doing — and not doing — while intruders rampaged through the Capitol building last year.

The panel is rushing to complete its work by year-end, after interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses to compile an exhaustive account of what precipitated the Capitol siege and what could be done to harden security and bolster government institutions.

As for Bannon, the case could wrap up as early as this week. If he's convicted on the misdemeanor contempt charges, he faces the prospect of jail time.

Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.