Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 19, 2018
Let’s admit that the daily push and pull of the various investigations — or blocked attempts at investigation — into the wide-ranging activities lumped as all-things-Russia are incremental and tiring.
The seemingly endless speculation about the significance of daily developments is the only quick item in the unearthing of slow-to-emerge details that often are difficult to piece together or to gauge in importance towards eventual criminal charges or adjustments in resisting foreign influence in elections. Even if the investigating committees were focused and in agreement about their roles, it would still take time to uncover foreign attempts to influence elections and the degree of cooperation with the Trump campaign.
Still, some developments stand out — either for their insight into the breadth of the investigation, or for the personalities involved, for how close to the Oval Office they creep, or now, because of process. It is useful to jump on these standout moments to assess where the various investigations stand.
This week’s appearance by Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign chairman and Trump whisperer, before the House Intelligence Committee is just such a standout. He is a boldface name whose House appearance came as he also had been subpoenaed at home by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller to answer to a grand jury.
But what distinguished the Bannon news was that he remained mute before the investigative committee because, he said, he had been “commanded” to remain silent by the White House. The committee immediately issued a subpoena to answer the questions over White House objections, and he must return to face the same questions.
This is the same White House that repeats virtually daily that there was no collusion with Russians, that the efforts to track possible wrongdoing is a “witch hunt,” and that the investigations are ill-advised, biased, or otherwise rotten at the core. The White House has nothing to hide, it says, but it told Bannon he could not discuss anything about the transition team or the operation of the White House during his tenure at each — to assert its “executive privilege” as it sees fit for others called to testify.
Even Republicans on the House committee defend the House’s right to question White House personnel.
Multiple sources told The Hill.com that Bannon indicated to lawmakers that he would answer questions about the Trump campaign, but not about his work on the transition team or in the White House. Bannon, alongside his lawyer, said he would only answer those questions when he speaks to Mueller. That stance infuriated lawmakers. Get used to it; there are other White House personnel about to undergo similar questions.
After the 10-hour session, top Democrat Adam Schiff of California criticized what he described as a “gag order by the White House” for Bannon. Schiff said Bannon’s lawyer conferred with the White House after the committee issued a subpoena “and was instructed by the White House to refuse again to answer any questions concerning the time during the transition and his time in the administration. . . The scope of this assertion of privilege — if that’s what it is — is breathtaking. It goes well beyond anything we’ve seen in this investigation … This was effectively a gag order by the White House.”
The White House said it is “fully cooperative” with the ongoing investigation without addressing directly whether it had instructed Bannon not to answer certain questions. “As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
What? The White House isn’t “consulting,” it is telling Bannon to keep his mouth zipped. That’s wrong. Plain wrong, even beyond the expected defense of White House “executive privilege.”
In the recent book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Bannon told author Michael Wolff that a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between campaign officials and a Russian lawyer believed to have political dirt on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was “treasonous.” According to Wolff, Bannon said, “The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor — with no lawyers. . . Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic … you should have called the FBI immediately.”
Bannon added, “the chance that (Donald Trump Jr.) did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.”
Lawmakers were expected to press Bannon on what the president knew about that meeting, long a flashpoint in the controversy surrounding the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, as well as any financial crimes that may have been committed.
Of course, when Bannon appears before a grand jury, he will not be able to duck questions with advice from the White House or a lawyer. It is not at all clear whether Bannon is trying to avoid questions in all this.
Let’s also remember that the Russia investigation concerns more than any ties with Russia. It also covers possible obstruction of justice by the White House in trying to shut down investigation, as possibly evidenced by the firing of former FBI director James B. Comey Jr., and financial dealings of the Trump family and circle.
Investigators’ interest in Bannon predates the release of the Wolff book. Bannon is expected to handle questions about what he knows about contacts that Trump transition team members may have had with Russian officials, about Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians last summer and about the Comey dismissal.
It would seem that the Mueller team is about to move into the courts in ways that signal a seriousness about wrongdoing that the White House dismissively wishes would simply melt away.