WASHINGTON, United States (AP) — Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has refused to answer a broad array of queries from the House Intelligence Committee about his time working for US President Donald Trump, leading the committee chairman to authorize a subpoena.
The developments Tuesday brought to the forefront questions about White House efforts to control what Bannon tells Congress about his time in Trump’s inner circle, and whether Republicans on Capitol Hill would force the issue.
The congressional subpoena came the same day The New York Times reported that Bannon, a former far-right media executive and recently scorned Trump adversary, has been subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller to testify before a federal grand jury.
Bannon would be the highest-ranking person who served in the Trump White House to be called before the grand jury. The move doesn’t confirm that Mueller is presenting evidence to support future criminal charges. But it does show that Mueller is actively using the grand jury as he examines the actions of Trump, his family and his staff during the campaign, the presidential transition and the early months of the administration.
Congressional officials declined to say whether Bannon disclosed Mueller’s subpoena during an all-day, closed-door interview with committee members.
Lawmakers questioned Bannon as part of their investigation into Russian election inference and sought answers about Trump’s thinking when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
But Bannon refused to answer questions about that crucial period, and as a result, the chairman, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes issued the subpoena, spokesman Jack Langer said.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, contended that Bannon’s refusal to answer those questions came at the instruction of the White House.
“This was effectively a gag order by the White House,” Schiff said shortly after Bannon’s interview concluded. Schiff said the committee plans to call Bannon back for a second interview.
A spokeswoman for Bannon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “no one” had encouraged Bannon not to be transparent during questioning but there’s a “process of what that looks like.”
“As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material. This is part of a judicially recognized process that goes back decades,” Sanders told reporters.
A White House official said the president did not seek to formally exert executive privilege over Bannon, which would have barred him from answering certain questions. The official said the administration believes it doesn’t have to invoke the privilege to keep Bannon from answering questions about his time in the White House. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The committee had planned to press Bannon on executive actions by Trump that have drawn interest from congressional investigators examining ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives, said another person, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about the closed-door session and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Those elements bear directly on the criminal investigation led by Mueller, who is charged with investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey or by taking other actions to thwart investigators.
The focus on Bannon follows his fall from power after being quoted in a book saying that he sees one of the president’s sons, Donald Jr., and others as engaging in “treasonous” behavior for taking a meeting with Russians during the 2016 campaign.
In Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Bannon accuses Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of essentially betraying the nation by meeting with a group of Russian lawyers and lobbyists who they believed were ready to offer “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
More recently, Bannon has said he was not referring to Trump Jr. but rather to Manafort. Wolff stands by his account.
After the book’s release, Trump quickly disavowed “Sloppy Steve Bannon” and argued there was no evidence of collusion between his presidential campaign and operatives tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bannon apologized a few days later but was stripped of his job leading the pro-Trump website Breitbart News.
Bannon last year had largely avoided the scrutiny of congressional investigators, who instead focused much of their energy on trying to secure interviews with witnesses such as Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.