Democrats say Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are failing to follow up on threats to hold former White House strategist Stephen Bannon in contempt of Congress.
After Bannon refused to answer some committee questions in an interview in early February, infuriated lawmakers issued a bipartisan subpoena and Republicans threatened to hold the mogul accountable.
Then, in a second appearance two weeks ago, Bannon provided responses to 25 questions scripted by the White House — angering Democrats who say that those constrained answers do not satisfy the subpoena, which technically remains on the table.
“They’ve said they would insist on Bannon, and yet they have not done so. They were very quick to pursue contempt proceedings regarding Fusion bank, but have not moved with anywhere near the same alacrity with Steve Bannon ,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat, told reporters Tuesday night.
Although Republicans appeared frustrated by Bannon’s testimony — Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who is leading the committee’s Russia probe, told reporters that “we have further steps to take, and we’ll be taking them”— they appear in little hurry to initiate proceedings.
Conaway told reporters Tuesday that there was “no change” in the status of internal negotiations over a possible contempt charge and that he did not know when he would speak to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who will make the final decision.
It’s a far cry from the reaction after Bannon’s first appearances, when Republicans floated the contempt resolution and warned that failing to act against him would risk eroding the subpoena power of every committee in Congress.
“If you don’t, what kind of precedent is that sending? For not just our committee, but every committee,” Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a senior member of the House Intelligence panel, said the day before the second Bannon meeting. “They don’t mean anything, just a hollow threat. We can’t do that.”
But the move to enforce a subpoena is ultimately a discretionary one.
Typically, the full House first approves a contempt of Congress citation. The Speaker then certifies the citation to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution.
The Senate certified a criminal contempt charge against Attorney General Eric Holder during President Obama’s second term, but the U.S. attorney refused to bring it before the grand jury. Most recently, Justice declined to act after the House approved a criminal contempt resolution against IRS official Lois Lerner in 2014.
At issue is whether Bannon can claim some subjects are off the table at the request of the White House, in order to vouchsafe the president’s ability to assert executive privilege in the future.
The doctrinal power exists to allow an administration to keep private some internal discussions so that there can be candid deliberation about policy.
Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, served on the presidential transition team and was a White House adviser before resigning in August.
Lawmakers say Bannon’s claim is an effective assertion of power that he, as a private citizen, does not have the right to invoke — particularly for the period of time before Trump took office.
But the White House ahead of Bannon’s second interview sent a letter arguing that the transition period falls under the president’s authority to claim privilege.
Schiff said such a privilege has never been held to apply to a presidential transition before.
Since Bannon’s appearance, other former and current Trump campaign officials have tried to claim a similar form of privilege without formally invoking it, aggravating Democrats who say that majority is playing by one set of rules for Bannon and another for other officials.
Communications director Hope Hicks , who appeared for over nine hours on Tuesday, also declined to answer some questions related to the transition period and after Inauguration. Democrats quickly called for her to be subpoenaed.
“This double standard is inexplicable,” Schiff said in a statement on Wednesday.
Republicans say Hicks presents a completely different case from Bannon, because she ultimately answered some questions about transition — specifically, those that mirrored testimony she had already given to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I think she’s been very forthright and open to all the questions that we’ve had,” Rooney said after the interview with Hicks concluded.
“Mr. Bannon was claiming a privilege based on the transition that we were asking what the privilege was and we weren’t comfortable that there was such a privilege. Ever since she has decided to answer questions based on that transition, she can’t be compared to Bannon.”