(Bloomberg) -- Steve Bannon never ignored a subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee as its return date was the subject of ongoing negotiation, and politics was behind the panel’s referral for criminal contempt charges, his defense attorney said.
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“Politics invades every decision they make,” Bannon’s attorney, Evan Corcoran, told jurors in a Washington courtroom Tuesday, calling it the “life blood” of the House of Representatives.
Corcoran told jurors the evidence would make “crystal clear” that nobody expected Bannon to appear for testimony on the stated date and urged them to carefully listen to whether any document or statement that is introduced at trial is affected by politics.
Bannon, 68, the long-time adviser to former President Donald Trump, is on trial for two misdemeanor counts of contempt of Congress for defying requests to hand over documents and testify to the congressional committee investigating the US Capitol riot. If convicted, the charges each carry a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of as much as $100,000.
A federal prosecutor presented jurors with a different version of events, saying Bannon “refused to follow the rules” in defying a subpoena from the House Jan. 6 committee, and that he should be held accountable.
“This case is about the defendant thumbing his nose at the orderly processes of our government,” Justice Department prosecutor Amanda Vaughn said. “Ours is a nation of laws and our system doesn’t work when people think they are above them.”
Vaughn told the jurors the government would present letters that would show that Bannon didn’t heed warnings that he would be held in criminal contempt if he didn’t comply with the subpoena.
She also walked through his ties with Trump and communications ahead of the riot to explain why the committee was interested in obtaining information from Bannon. Vaughn explained to the jury that by refusing to answer the subpoena, Bannon had thwarted the effort by lawmakers to ensure an event like Jan. 6 was never repeated.
The government called its first witness, Kristin Amerling, chief counsel to the Jan. committee who advised on issuing the subpoena to Bannon, before recessing for the day.
Amerling testified that Bannon didn’t provide documents or appear for deposition on the requested dates. Amerling explained the time pressure faced by the committee to gather documents and testimony since its authority to investigate would end at the end of the year.
Bannon, a right-wing talk show radio host, switched his posture on a chair at the defense table once his defense attorney began speaking, leaving his laid back position to sit at the edge of the seat staring at the jury. In the courtroom, Bannon was quiet and listened -- a far cry from the posture he took outside the courthouse eight months ago when he said the charges would be “the misdemeanor from hell” for top Democrats.
The opening statements started in the Washington courtroom Tuesday afternoon only after a morning spent wrangling between the defense attorneys and the judge about what evidence could be admitted. Bannon’s attorneys renewed efforts to delay the trial, only to have the judge once again deny that request.
The dispute came after US District Judge Carl J. Nichols initially said he would allow the government to introduce as evidence redacted letters from committee Chairman Bennie Thompson to Bannon’s former attorney, Robert Costello, regarding the subpoena. The defense had originally moved to strike them unless Thompson testified.
The government pushed to include the letters to show that Bannon knew that the excuse he raised for rejecting the subpoena had been worked out.
In one letter, Thompson communicated to Bannon’s lawyer that refusing to respond because of executive privilege was without “any legal basis” and that the committee didn’t hear from Trump that it had been waived.
The discussions Tuesday ended with the judge admitting the letters after Bannon’s defense said it would be better to present the documents without redactions to avoid limiting its defense.
The government has argued that Bannon ignored two deadlines to comply with the committee’s request for documents and testimony. Bannon’s defense lawyers say he never neglected the subpoena since the deadline for compliance was unclear. They plan to point to efforts by Thompson to enforce the subpoena after the return dates to suggest the deadline was waived.
As the trial neared, Bannon’s lawyer informed the committee he would be willing to testify since Trump had waived executive privilege. Trump sent a separate letter confirming that he was freeing Bannon to cooperate with the committee.
Nichols previously questioned whether Trump ever invoked executive privilege and said it was unclear whether the protection applied to Bannon since he was a private citizen when offering advice.
The Jan. 6 committee has continued its investigation of the attack on the US Capitol in 2021, with the next public testimony scheduled for Thursday.
The panel sought Bannon’s testimony because of his involvement in events leading up to riot, including reports that he attended “war room” meetings at Washington’s Willard Hotel with Rudy Giuliani and others to discuss how to keep Trump in office after he lost the 2020 presidential election. Trump also held two phone calls with Bannon on the eve of the riot, according to the committee.
Outside the courthouse after the trial recessed for the day Tuesday, a couple of protesters and supporters waited for Bannon. One woman held up a sign that said “Lock him up!”
Bannon wouldn’t take any questions from a gaggle of media but made a few political statements.
“I challenge Bennie Thompson today to have the courage to come to this courthouse,” Bannon said. “Senior people on the committee shouldn’t have to send staffers. They should send themselves.”
(Updates with Bannon comments outside the courthouse.)
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