Lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election vowed Tuesday to force answers from Steve Bannon after the former senior strategist to President Donald Trump stonewalled their inquiries — even after the committee issued a subpoena with bipartisan support.
Lawmakers in both parties attributed Bannon’s silence to the White House, which they said told him to refuse to discuss his time in the West Wing or on Trump’s transition team. Bannon’s refusal to speak clearly angered lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee, who vowed to make him speak.
“We’re going to get answers from Mr. Bannon,” said Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, the top Republican on the committee’s probe of Russian interference in the presidential election.
Tensions flared early in the proceedings after Bannon informed the committee that he was refusing to answer any questions about his time in the White House or on the post-election transition, infuriating Democrats and Republicans on the panel, who subpoenaed him on the spot, according to a source familiar with the interview.
According to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), after the subpoena, Bannon’s attorney contacted the White House, which he said “doubled down” on its demand that he refuse to answer the committee’s questions.
“This was effectively a gag order by the White House,” Schiff said after the interview concluded. He said he expected Bannon to return to the committee soon, without any restrictions demanded by the White House.
Bannon was behind closed doors with committee members and staff for more than 10 hours. Schiff said much of the time was spent negotiating the parameters of his testimony. Conaway recessed the interview after 8 p.m., and he declined to say whether he would pursue additional steps, such as holding Bannon in contempt or issuing a further subpoena for documents.
Schiff and Conaway confirmed that Bannon and the White House didn’t specifically assert executive privilege to avoid answering questions, but rather suggested that some of the answers could potentially infringe upon executive privilege. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a similar case when he declined to answer some questions he had received from lawmakers in various ongoing Russia probes.
But Bannon also refused to discuss conversations he may have had with Trump even after he left the White House in August, Schiff said. And a source familiar with the interview added that lawmakers were perplexed at Bannon’s suggestion that the transition period — when Trump wasn’t yet in office — could be subject to executive privilege claims.
The decision by Republicans and Democrats to subpoena Bannon represented unusual bipartisan pushback for a committee that has recently been mired in partisan discord. And Bannon’s appearance came just weeks after a falling-out with Trump over comments Bannon made in an explosive new book.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, confirmed Tuesday that he backed the subpoena, which he has unilateral power to approve.
“Of course I authorized the subpoena,” he told reporters. “That’s how the rules work.”
The White House’s apparent call for Bannon to refuse to answer the committee’s questions comes after Trump described Bannon as a relative bit player in his administration, following their public falling out last week.
“Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue,” Trump said in a statement after quotes from a Bannon interview for the book “Fire and Fury,” by Michael Wolff, began making the rounds earlier this month.
Bannon was in the White House during a stretch of Trump’s presidency that included Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, which is now of interest in a criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s examining whether Russians had any help from Trump associates in their interference in the 2016 election — and whether the president or allies obstructed the FBI’s investigation in the matter.
The source familiar with the interview said Republican lawmakers — including Conaway and former federal prosecutor Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina — were also frustrated that Bannon was not more forthcoming.
Bannon, his attorney and his spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment. Schiff said Bannon informed Republican staff members on the committee ahead of the interview that he wouldn’t be answering questions about anything other than his two-month tenure on the Trump campaign. Schiff said that information wasn’t relayed to most members of the committee until the morning of the interview, prompting frustration among lawmakers.
A White House official defended its position, saying the lawmakers overlooked a standard practice of coordinating with the White House to get information.
“It’s a grandstanding move,” the official said of the subpoena issued to Bannon.
The dispute inside the committee room comes as Bannon was also reportedly subpoenaed by Mueller in his criminal probe of Russian meddling. The New York Times reported that Mueller’s subpoena was the first grand jury subpoena issued against a member of Trump’s inner circle in the probe.
Bannon occupied a senior position in the administration when the Times revealed a June 2016 meeting organized by the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Kremlin-linked people. Mueller has reportedly been interested in a series of misleading statements that emerged about that meeting.
In “Fire and Fury,” Bannon described the meeting as “treasonous” and suggested Trump Jr., as well as Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could be in legal jeopardy. Bannon later expressed regret about his comments about the president’s son.