Bannon ‘chose allegiance’ to Trump over the law, prosecutors argue
The Washington Post July 22, 2022
WASHINGTON - Steve Bannon “chose allegiance to Donald Trump over compliance with the law,” a prosecutor told jurors in closing arguments at his contempt of Congress trial, in which he is accused of ignoring a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6. 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“This case is not complicated, but it is important,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Gaston told jurors in closing arguments Friday. “It is important because our government only works if people show up. It only works if people play by the rules.”
Bannon’s defense lawyer countered that the subpoena was illegitimate and politically motivated, and that the deadlines for Bannon to comply were merely “placeholders” for further negotiation.
Bannon “didn’t intentionally refuse to comply with a subpoena. Absolutely not. He didn’t intentionally refuse to comply with anything,” defense lawyer M. Evan Corcoran said.
But prosecutors maintained that the issue is much simpler - Bannon just refused to speak to the committee, akin to a person who received a parking ticket deciding not to pay or fight it, but just ignore it.
“He did not want to answer its questions,” Gaston said. “And when it really comes down to it, he did not want to recognize Congress’s authority or play by the government’s rules.”
She highlighted Bannon’s failure to respond or to produce a single document before the subpoena deadline, after which Bannon’s attorneys asserted that former President Donald Trump intended to assert executive privilege.
“His belief that he had a good excuse not to comply does not matter,” Gaston said, drawing out the final words to make the point.
As she spoke, Bannon sat behind her, his hands clasped on the defense table.
Prior court rulings had left Bannon with few legal or factual points to make, and twice during closing arguments, the judge stopped Corcoran from offering arguments that had previously been rejected.
The defense lawyer tried to attack the prosecution case by suggesting the signature on Bannon’s subpoena by the committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., might not be real. Corcoran also tried to suggest the subpoena was illegitimate because the committee may not have followed certain procedures. In both instances, prosecutors objected and the judge appeared to rule against Bannon.
Corcoran took aim at the credibility of the main prosecution witness, Kristin Amerling, the chief counsel for the Jan. 6 committee, suggesting she and the Democrats on the committee were in a rush to punish Bannon, singling him out of more than 1,000 committee witnesses in an election year.
“She didn’t listen to Steve Bannon’s reasonable request,” said Corcoran. “This is about Ms. Amerling saying people need to play by her rules.”
Corcoran also brought up a past connection between Gaston, the prosecutor, and Amerling - 15 years ago they had worked together in Congress, and both belonged to the same book club. Amerling testified she hadn’t seen Gaston in years.
Make no mistake, I’m not against book clubs,” said Corcoran told jurors. “But why did Ms. Amerling play down her connection with the prosecutor? ... It may be that Ms. Amerling herself can no longer see how her longtime political career affects her - but you’ve got to see.”
Gaston ridiculed that reasoning.
“The only person who is making this case about politics is the defendant. And he’s doing it to distract and confuse you,” she said. “There is nothing political about figuring out why January 6 happened, and how to make sure it never happens again. And there is nothing political about enforcing the law against someone who, like the defendant, flouts it.”
The jury is expected to begin deliberations later on Friday.
U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols has said he will wait until jurors return a verdict or are discharged before ruling on a defense motion challenging two issues: whether prosecutors have met their burden of proof, and the judge’s rejection of a defense request to call Thompson, the Jan. 6 committee chair, as a witness.
Bannon’s attorneys have also signaled that if he is convicted, they will appeal Nichols’s rulings that a defendant charged with contempt of Congress cannot raise as a defense that he or she was relying on the advice of counsel or believed their cooperation was barred by a president’s claim of executive privilege.
Each of the two misdemeanor charges is punishable by at least 30 days and up to one year in jail. But it is exceedingly rare for someone to serve time in jail for contempt of Congress; that hasn’t happened since the 1950s.
The trial began Monday with a full day of jury selection, during which several potential jurors were dismissed because of their familiarity with or opinions of the Jan. 6 riot and subsequent investigations.
Nichols had earlier rejected a host of Bannon’s potential defenses, including his contention that Trump had claimed executive privilege over his testimony and documents. Nichols, a 2019 Trump appointee who served in George W. Bush’s Justice Department from 2005 to 2009, narrowed Bannon’s defenses at trial mainly to whether he understood the deadlines for answering lawmakers’ demands. The judge also said Bannon could argue whether he thought the window for compliance remained open.
In presenting their case, prosecutors called two witnesses: Amerling, who described how Bannon did not engage with the committee until after he had missed the first response deadline; and FBI Special Agent Stephen Hart, who talked about his conversation with a lawyer who represented Bannon in his dealings with the committee, as well as postings made by one of Bannon’s official social media accounts after he was subpoenaed.
Bannon did not present any defense witnesses. The defense made their motion to dismiss the charges, arguing that the government had not proved its case - a fairly common move by defense attorneys at the end of a trial, and one that rarely succeeds.
Bannon is one of two former Trump aides to face criminal charges in connection with rebuffing the committee, along with former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. The Justice Department has said it would not charge former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and communications chief Daniel Scavino Jr., who also were referred by Congress for potential criminal prosecution.
Unlike Bannon and Navarro, Meadows and Scavino engaged in months of talks with the committee over the terms and limits of potential testimony and executive privilege claims. Meadows also turned over thousands of text messages and communications with members of Congress and other White House aides before ending negotiations and withdrawing his appearance for a deposition.
And unlike the other three men, Bannon left the Trump White House in 2017 and was a private citizen at the time of the 2020 election and subsequent presidential transition.