Ousted Donald Trump “chief strategist” Steve Bannon clammed up when he testified to the House Intelligence Committee in the ongoing Russia collusion investigation on Tuesday, due to what the top-ranking Democrat on the committee called an unprecedented “gag order” from the White House. But even Republicans on the committee who have defended Trump in the Russia probe attempted to compel Bannon to talk, as the 64-year-old former Breitbart chief who ran Trump’s campaign from August through the November election in 2016 found himself in a “room full of enemies.”
Bannon refused to answer any questions about his time in the White House, or during the transition period between the November 8, 2016, election and Trump’s January 20, 2017, inauguration, citing orders from White House lawyers. The committee then issued Bannon a subpoena, which legally compelled him to answer questions — but he continued to refuse anyway, according to reports from the hearing room.
Republican committee chair Devin Nunes, a staunch Trump ally, said that he authorized the subpoena, and a source told the political news site Axios that Bannon, who recently experienced a public and bitter falling-out with Trump, found himself without allies in the hearing room — on either side of the aisle.
“Everybody seemed to hate him — both sides. He had no friends in that room…. [H]e was in a room full of enemies,” the source who had “direct knowledge” of the hearing told Axios reporter Jonathan Swan.
California Democrat Adam Schiff, the second-highest ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that Bannon’s extensive stonewalling under White House orders was something that the committee had never seen before.
“This was effectively a gag order by the White House preventing this witness from answering almost any question concerning his time in the transition or the administration,” Schiff said following the 11-hour hearing. “The scope of this assertion of privilege, if that’s what it is, is breathtaking. It goes well beyond anything we have seen in this investigation. If the White House is permitted to maintain that kind of gag rule on a witness, no congressional investigation could ever be effective. So this obviously can’t stand.”
There is no legal basis in which the White House can instruct witnesses like Steve Bannon to refuse broad categories of questions before our committee. We must insist on answers.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) January 17, 2018
The legal grounds on which the White House ordered Bannon to refuse questions was unclear. While presidents can often invoke “executive privilege” to shield their direct communications with staff members, the Supreme Court has ruled that “a generalized claim of the public interest in confidentiality” is not good enough to invoke executive privilege.
Eric Swalwell, another California Democrat on the committee, called the White House order an act of obstruction.
“We witnessed today what I believe was the most aggressive effort by the White House thus far to obstruct our efforts to seek the truth,” Swalwell said in an MSNBC interview later on Tuesday evening, as seen in the video below.
“We witnessed today what I believe was the most aggressive effort by the White House thus far to obstruct our efforts to seek the truth.”@RepSwalwell reacts to Steve Bannon’s refusal to answer questions at the W.H.’s direction during his 9.5-hour under-oath testimony. #LastWord pic.twitter.com/TmUVKm3hXL
— The Last Word (@TheLastWord) January 17, 2018
But Bannon may have felt able to maintain his silence before the committee because he knew that he had already been served a subpoena by Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller — even though the Mueller subpoena, which compels Bannon to testify before a grand jury at a date yet to be announced, was not reported publicly until Bannon was already inside the House Intelligence Committee hearing room, testifying behind closed doors.
In fact, however, FBI agents showed up at Bannon’s home last week, armed with the subpoena, though they were redirected to his lawyer William Burck, according to an NBC News report.
According to an exclusive report by The Daily Beast online news site, Bannon will not honor the White House “gag order” when he testifies before Mueller’s grand jury — testimony likely to take place before the end of January.
“Mueller will hear everything Bannon has to say,” a source “familiar with Bannon’s thinking” told Daily Beast reporter Betsy Woodruff.
The House Intelligence Committee is not done with Bannon, however, and has reportedly called him back to testify again on Thursday. But whether Bannon will break the White House gag order, or whether Trump — who has repeatedly insisted that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia — will allow Bannon to testify freely remains unclear.