WASHINGTON - Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon skipped a scheduled interview Tuesday with the House Intelligence Committee about his time as a key adviser to President Donald Trump, even after lawmakers subpoenaed him to appear.
Congressman Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the panel's investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 U.S. presidential election, said he had expected Bannon to appear to answer questions, but Bannon was a no-show, part of lawmakers' ongoing dispute with the White House over the scope of their questioning of Bannon.
Bannon could face a contempt of Congress charge for his failure to answer the subpoena, but it was not clear whether the committee would take any action against him.
The top Democrat on the panel, Congressman Adam Schiff of California, said Bannon's lawyer told the committee this week the White House is continuing to block Bannon's testimony "beyond a set of 14 yes-or-no questions the White House had pre-approved."
Schiff said the White House position on Bannon's testimony "covers matters during the transition" before Trump's assumption of power a year ago, Bannon's seven months at the White House, and his communications with Trump since leaving government service last August, "even though the president has not in fact invoked executive privilege" to bar Bannon's testimony.
Schiff called the White House stance "unacceptable" and said the subpoena remains in effect, with Bannon's interview rescheduled for next week. He said that "should Bannon maintain his refusal to return and testify fully to all questions, the committee should begin contempt proceedings to compel his testimony.”
Bannon last month spent 10 hours before the committee, but largely refused to answer questions about the weeks he spent helping Trump organize his administration before Trump took office in January 2017, and then about the time he served as the president's chief strategist until he was ousted in August.
Fall from grace
Bannon was a vocal alt-right supporter of Trump's brand of America-first populism in the White House. But he fell from grace with the president after voicing disparaging views of White House operations and other Trump advisers in author Michael Wolff's recently published book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
Bannon was particularly critical of Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both of whom are White House advisers, and Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., for his role in arranging a Trump Tower meeting in New York in the midst of the 2016 campaign on the premise a Russian lawyer would turn over incriminating evidence about his father's election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,” Trump said of Bannon.
Even as Bannon has feuded with the House panel over his questioning, news accounts say he plans to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russian meddling and whether Trump obstructed justice by seeking to curb his probe.
While negotiations over Bannon's testimony plays out, The New York Times reported that Trump's lawyers are advising him not to agree to appear for an interview with Mueller.
Mueller's team has already talked to multiple White House officials and others involved with Trump's campaign for president, as part of its criminal probe into the Russia interference in the U.S. election and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey, the one-time director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was heading the agency's Russia investigation at the time Trump dismissed him.
The Times said that according to four people briefed on the issue, Trump's lawyers have concerns about whether the president would make false or contradictory statements and thus open himself up to possible charges of lying to federal investigators. The report says further the lawyers believe Mueller should not be legally allowed to question the president about some aspects of the investigation.
Trump said recently he looks forward to answering Mueller's questions under oath. Earlier, he questioned why such a step would be necessary as he rejected that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia and said he did not obstruct justice by firing Comey.
Mueller could subpoena Trump if he does not agree to a request to speak with the investigators. The Times said the president's lawyers believe Mueller might not be willing to take that step and enter a legal battle with the White House to force his testimony.