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Steve Bannon guilty of criminal contempt of Congress

Bannon guilty of criminal contempt of Congress
Steve Bannon guilty of criminal contempt of Congress 00:18

Washington — Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's one-time top campaign aide and chief White House strategist, has been found guilty of two counts of criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena for documents and testimony issued by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

A jury of 12 Washington, D.C., residents convicted Bannon after less than three hours of deliberation. 

Bannon did not testify in his own defense and faces a maximum of one year in prison for each of the two counts. He will not be detained pending sentencing, which is scheduled for Oct. 21.

The Justice Department charged Bannon with contempt after the House of Representatives voted to send a criminal referral for his non-compliance for prosecution last year. 

Bannon pleaded not guilty, and what followed was a tumultuous legal battle between the defense and prosecutors over which evidence was admissible, Bannon's efforts to postpone the proceedings, and the ongoing televised hearings showcasing the House Jan. 6 select committee's evidence, which has referenced Bannon multiple times. 

The House committee, which wrapped up its final summer hearing on Thursday night, issued the subpoena in September 2021. The panel sought information from Bannon in 17 key areas, ranging from his communications with former President Trump to his knowledge of coordination between right-wing extremist groups in carrying out the Capitol attack.

Washington, D.C.: Juror reads verdict in criminal contempt case against Steve Bannon, July 22, 2022. Sketch by William Hennessy Jr.

Prosecutors told the jury that Bannon thought he was "above the law" and "thumbed his nose" at congressional demands, while Bannon himself did not testify and his legal team called no witnesses. 

The chief counsel for the Jan. 6 committee told jurors that it's "very unusual" for witnesses who receive a congressional subpoena to outright fail to comply, as Bannon did. Kristin Amerling, one of two witnesses called by prosectors,  said the committee viewed its referral of Bannon to the Justice Department for criminal contempt of Congress as a "very serious step." They warned Bannon that he could be charged with a crime, she said, but he did not comply. 

Bannon maintained at the time of his refusal that he could not testify because of executive privilege concerns raised by the former president. Amerling, however, said the committee never received notice from Trump about this obstacle to deposing Bannon, and the committee would not have recognized such a claim anyway.

In a surprising about-face days before the trial began, Bannon told the Jan. 6 committee that he would be willing to testify — publicly – after his attorney, Robert Costello, said Trump had reversed course on those executive privilege claims. 

The jury was allowed to hear about the reversal both in witness questioning and closing statements, but jurors were instructed by the judge that it had no bearing on Bannon's earlier alleged refusal to comply. 

"Whether or not Mr. Bannon in the future complies with the subpoena is not relevant to whether or not he was in default in October," Judge Carl Nichols told them. 

Prosecutors also called the FBI agent assigned to the case, who testified that Bannon had allegedly made multiple online posts indicating his decision not to comply with the subpoena, in order to "stand with Trump."  

"Our government only works if people show up. It only works if people play by the rules. And it only works if people are held accountable with they do not," prosecutor Molly Gaston said in closing arguments.

"The defendant choose allegiance to Donald Trump over compliance with the law," she said.

But the defense team argued Bannon was innocent, that he thought conversations regarding the validity of Trump's executive privilege claim were ongoing and flexible and that he had not willfully defied the congressional request. They told the jury he had possibly been "singled out" by the committee and Amerling because of politics.

"Even if you think in hindsight that path that Mr. Bannon took and the path that his lawyer took…turned out to be mistake," attorney Evan Corcoran told the jury in his  closing statements, "it was not a crime." 

"The entire foundation of the government's case rests on Ms. Amerling," the attorney added, accusing her of inaccuracies and later highlighting that Amerling and Gaston were former colleagues and part of the same book club. Amerling said they had no personal relationship, and the book club had no bearing on her testimony.  

Throughout the trial, but outside the presence of the jury, Bannon's attorneys took issue with the judge's pretrial rulings, among them, one that would prevent Bannon from saying he was just following the advice of counsel and that he believed executive privilege applied to his decision not to testify before the committee. The defense was also not allowed to call members of the House Jan. 6 committee as witnesses, which they said put them at a disadvantage because they were unable to probe the reasoning behind the subpoena and its deadlines. 

Outside of the court, Bannon told reporters that he stood with Trump and the Constitution. His attorneys indicated they intend to appeal the decision, based on Nichols' suggestion that he may not have agreed with binding D.C. precedent that barred Bannon from calling members of Congress to testify and prevented him from defending himself, based on advice of counsel.

"Shame on this office…for how far they went in this case," Schoen said of the U.S. attorney.  

Bannon is the first of two Trump allies accused of criminally defying the Jan. 6 committee's demands to stand trial. Former trade adviser Peter Navarro also faces two counts of criminal contempt of Congress. He pleaded not guilty and is set to stand trial in November.

Prosecutors declined to bring charges against two other former Trump White House officials who the House referred for contempt. Former White House chief of Staff Mark Meadows and adviser Dan Scavino were not charged with any crimes after the Jan. 6 committee said they did not adequately comply with a subpoena. 

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