Jury selection began Monday in the trial of Steve Bannon, the onetime senior adviser to former President Donald Trump who now faces two counts of contempt of Congress for his failure to comply with a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol.
Bannon was subpoenaed by the committee because investigators believe he had prior knowledge of some elements of the attack in which hundreds of Trump supporters attempted to stop Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election.
Of the various former Trump officials whom the committee asked to provide testimony, Bannon has been among the most defiant, declining to produce documents, refusing to appear at scheduled depositions and making combative public statements about the investigation. If convicted on the contempt charges, he faces up to two years in prison.
Monday marked the beginning of "voir dire," a process in which potential members of the jury face questions from attorneys on both sides in order to establish their ability to consider the case objectively. By the end of the day, eight potential jurors had been identified, out of the 12 total, plus alternates, that are required for a federal criminal trial.
Knowledge of attack
The January 6 committee has said it wants Bannon to testify because "according to many published reports, and his own public statements, Stephen K. Bannon had specific knowledge about the events planned for January 6th before they occurred."
On his regular podcast on January 5, Bannon warned that "all hell is going to break loose tomorrow."
The congressional committee also said that in addition to helping organize the "Stop the Steal" movement that helped spur the attack, Bannon participated in a "war room" meeting at a hotel near the White House on January 5 and spoke to Trump that day.
In a contempt resolution presented to the full House of Representatives, the committee wrote, "In short, Mr. Bannon appears to have played a multi-faceted role in the events of January 6th, and the American people are entitled to hear his first-hand testimony regarding his actions."
Executive privilege claim
Bannon, whose official title was White House chief strategist and senior counselor to the president during the seven months he served in the Trump administration in 2017, claimed that his documents and testimony were protected because of his connections to the White House. Under the doctrine of "executive privilege," certain communications between a president and his advisers can be kept confidential.
In a pre-trial hearing last week, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols ruled that Bannon, who left his White House job more than three years before the attack, was not entitled to claim executive privilege as a defense.
In the same hearing, Nichols, who was appointed by Trump, disallowed nearly all of the defenses that Bannon's attorneys were planning to make, including a suggestion that the trial was unnecessary because Bannon is now willing to consider providing testimony to the committee after all.
The judge said Bannon's only remaining defense is to claim that he somehow misunderstood the deadline for compliance with the congressional subpoena he had received.
Nichols' rulings resulted in a remarkable exchange between the judge and Bannon defense attorney David I. Schoen, who complained, "What's the point of going to trial if there are no defenses?"
"Agreed," the judge replied.
Few paths forward
Noah Bookbinder, a former public corruption prosecutor and now the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the judge's answer to Schoen indicated the dire straits in which Bannon finds himself.
"The judge, essentially, all but told Bannon to plead guilty, because there doesn't really seem to be a path forward for him to be found not guilty," Bookbinder told VOA.
Bookbinder said it is difficult to know what a guilty plea or guilty verdict would mean for Bannon.
"There's not a lot of precedent," he said. "You don't actually have cases like this that go to trial very often."
While conceding that Bannon's refusal to testify may not rise to the level of many things for which people are sent to prison, Bookbinder said it remains distinctly possible that Bannon will see the inside of a cell if he refuses to provide evidence to the committee.
"You could imagine a case where a judge looks at it and says, 'You know, he's still not doing the thing that he's supposed to do that brought him to this point,'" Bookbinder said. "Putting him on probation is not going to be necessarily very effective. And so, maybe a judge does send him to jail."
Bannon, a former naval officer who holds graduate degrees from Georgetown and Harvard universities, came to U.S. politics by a winding path. After working for the investment bank Goldman Sachs in the late 1980s, he launched his own investment bank in 1990 and became active in Hollywood, producing multiple motion pictures.
Bannon also briefly served as executive director of the Biosphere 2 project, an effort to create a closed biological system that could help research ways in which humans might be able to live on other planets.
Bannon was one of the founding members of Breitbart News, which he eventually took over and transformed into a vehicle for the emerging "alt-right" movement in U.S. politics. That movement coalesced behind Trump as a candidate for the presidency in 2016, and Bannon found himself in the inner circle of Trump's campaign, eventually taking control of the operation in the months prior to the election.
In addition to his involvement with Trump's campaign, Bannon was also an executive with Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that was accused of illegally using data taken from Facebook to influence the results of the 2016 election.
In 2020, Bannon was indicted on federal fraud charges in connection with We Build the Wall, an organization that claimed to be collecting donations that would be put toward the completion of the wall that Trump promised to construct between the U.S. and Mexico.
On Jan. 20, 2021, the day he left office, Trump officially pardoned Bannon of the federal charges against him. The case was dismissed.