House Republican leaders are weighing “further steps” to force former top White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon to answer investigators’ questions in their probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — including potentially declaring him in contempt of Congress — after a Thursday interview they called “frustrating.”
Bannon came to speak with the House Intelligence Committee under a subpoena the panel issued on the spot last month, when he refused to answer questions related to the transition period and his tenure in the White House. On Thursday, Bannon presented panel members with a list of 25 questions that he would be willing to answer from that time period. But according to the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the questions had all been “literally scripted” by the White House, and his answer to all of them was “no.”
When the committee tried to push Bannon to answer questions that were not on his list, he repeatedly told members that the White House had not authorized him to engage on those queries. At no point, people familiar with the interview said, did Bannon voluntarily elaborate on his answers.
Intelligence Committee member K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) said Thursday that he, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and a few others would decide whether to accept Bannon’s legal arguments against answering the panel’s questions or take punitive measures such as contempt. But the decision-makers would not include panel chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has , Conaway said.
When asked if he was personally ready to issue a contempt citation for Bannon, Conaway said only: “I think he should answer our questions.”
Republican leaders are not expected to decide on a course of action until late February, after they return to Washington following a one-week recess, he said.
Schiff, however, demanded that the committee move to hold Bannon in contempt as soon as possible.
“I think contempt is the only road left open to us,” Schiff said.
Bannon’s return to the committee was scheduled and delayed three times while the White House hammered out the terms of the interview with the House counsel. On Wednesday night, the White House sent the committee a letter outlining its argument for why executive privilege could apply to the transition period, according to panel members. But lawmakers said that letter was not a formal invocation of executive privilege, and they continue to reject the premise that privilege can apply to the transition period, when Trump was not in the Oval Office.
Panel members on both sides of the aisle also stressed that Bannon could not cite nonexistent privilege as an excuse to avoid their questions.
“That’s not how privilege works,” Schiff said. “That’s how stonewalling works.”
It is not clear what type of contempt the committee could seek to declare against Bannon, if Republican leaders choose to pursue that path at all. Should they decide to seek a contempt citation, a vote in the House Intelligence Committee would first be required — and later, probably, a resolution by the whole House — before the case would be transferred to the courts.
If Bannon does not settle with the committee, the matter could linger in the courts far beyond the committee’s projected schedule to wrap up its Russia probe. That, Schiff surmised, could be “part of the White House stratagem.”
“They have decided they want to stop our committee, and they hope to draw this out long enough,” Schiff said.
The House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe has long been plagued by partisan divisions. But Bannon’s fight with the panel has drawn Democrats and Republicans together in a rare common cause, as they seek to make sure the White House’s efforts to protect Bannon do not erode the power of a congressional subpoena — something that could have “deep implications for any investigation Congress may conduct in the future,” Schiff said.
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Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) led the panel last month in pushing Bannon to answer all of its questions and ultimately deciding to issue him a subpoena. Now several Republicans say that holding Bannon in contempt, if he does not cooperate with their interview, will be necessary to send a message to this and future administrations that they cannot blithely ignore congressional subpoenas and other oversight.
“If you don’t, I mean, what kind of precedent is that sending? For not just our committee, but every committee?” Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), who was deputized to help run the committee’s Russia probe, said Wednesday. He said panel and party leaders would be likely to sign off on the move.
Bannon has not put any such limitations on his participation in the Justice Department’s Russia probe being run by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The Intelligence Committee’s effort is not supposed to overlap with Mueller’s probe, but members stress that the same events and people are relevant to both investigations.