WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon, a onetime senior aide to former President Donald Trump, was indicted by a federal grand jury Friday on two counts of contempt of Congress, after his refusal to provide information to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Bannon, 67, last month declined to comply with subpoenas from the committee seeking testimony and documents from him. The House then voted to hold Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress.
After holding Bannon in contempt, the House referred the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office here for a decision on whether to prosecute him.
Trump has directed his former aides and advisers to invoke immunity and refrain from turning over documents that might be protected under executive privilege.
A Justice Department spokesperson said Bannon was expected to turn himself in to authorities Monday and make his first appearance in U.S. District Court here later that day.
A lawyer for Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The politically and legally complex case was widely seen as a litmus test for whether the Justice Department would take an aggressive stance against one of Trump’s top allies as the House seeks to develop a fuller picture of the actions of the former president and his aides and advisers before and during the attack on the Capitol.
At a time of deep political polarization, the Biden Justice Department now finds itself prosecuting a top adviser to the previous president of another party in relation to an extraordinary attack by Trump’s supporters on a fundamental element of democracy: the peaceful transfer of power.
The grand jury’s decision to indict Bannon also raises questions about similar potential criminal exposure for Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff.
Before the Justice Department announced the indictment of Bannon, Meadows, a former House member from North Carolina, failed to meet a deadline of Friday morning for complying with the House committee’s request for information.
While Meadows served in the White House during the period being scrutinized by the committee, Bannon left the White House in 2017 and was a private citizen while backing Trump’s efforts to hold onto power after Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. The length of time since Bannon served in the White House has complicated the question of whether he can claim to be covered by executive privilege.
After the referral from the House in Bannon’s case, FBI agents in the Washington field office investigated the matter. Career prosecutors in the public integrity unit of the U.S. attorney’s office here determined that it would be appropriate to charge Bannon with two counts of contempt, and a person familiar with the deliberations said they received the full support of Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“Since my first day in office, I have promised Justice Department employees that together we would show the American people by word and deed that the department adheres to the rule of law, follows the facts and the law, and pursues equal justice under the law,” Garland said in a statement. “Today’s charges reflect the department’s steadfast commitment to these principles.”
One contempt count is related to Bannon’s refusal to appear for a deposition, and the other is for his refusal to produce documents for the committee.
The committee issued subpoenas in September to Bannon and several others who had ties to the Trump White House, and it has since issued scores of subpoenas to other allies of the former president.
The committee, which is controlled by Democrats, said it had reason to believe that Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and counselor, could help investigators better understand the Jan. 6 attack, which was meant to stop the certification of Biden’s victory.
In a report recommending that the House find Bannon in contempt, the committee repeatedly cited comments he made on his radio show Jan. 5 — when Bannon promised “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow” — as evidence that “he had some foreknowledge about extreme events that would occur the next day.”
Investigators have also pointed to a conversation Bannon had with Trump on Dec. 30 in which he urged him to focus his efforts on Jan. 6. Bannon also was present at a meeting at the Willard Hotel here the day before the violence, when plans were discussed to try to overturn the results of the election the next day, the committee has said.
Although many of those who received subpoenas have sought to work to some degree with the committee, Bannon claimed that his conversations with Trump were covered by executive privilege despite not having worked in the White House for years at the time of the Jan. 6 riot.
Bannon’s relationship with Trump was strained at times after Bannon left the White House, but he remained a close ally and promoter of Trump’s brand of politics from the outside.
Bannon was indicted and arrested last year by federal prosecutors in Manhattan on charges related to the money raised to promote the construction of the border wall long sought by Trump. But before facing trial, he was preemptively pardoned by Trump hours before the former president left office in January.
Each count of contempt of Congress carries a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of one year in jail, as well as a fine of $100 to $1,000.
The charges against Bannon come as the committee is considering criminal contempt referrals against two other Trump allies who have refused to comply with its subpoenas: Meadows and Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department official who participated in Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
“Steve Bannon’s indictment should send a clear message to anyone who thinks they can ignore the select committee or try to stonewall our investigation: No one is above the law,” the leaders of the panel, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a statement. “We will not hesitate to use the tools at our disposal to get the information we need.”
Earlier, they had released another blistering statement after Meadows failed to appear to answer questions at a scheduled deposition. Meadows’ lawyer, George Terwilliger III, informed the committee that his client felt “duty bound” to follow Trump’s instructions to defy the committee, citing executive privilege.
“Mr. Meadows’ actions today — choosing to defy the law — will force the select committee to consider pursuing contempt or other proceedings to enforce the subpoena,” Thompson and Cheney said.
They said Meadows refused to answer even basic questions, such as whether he was using a private cellphone to communicate Jan. 6 and the location of his text messages from that day.
The committee noted that more than 150 witnesses had cooperated with its investigation, providing the panel with “critical details.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the committee, said the charges showed how differently the Justice Department could act once its leadership was no longer loyal to Trump.
“It’s great to have a Department of Justice that’s back in business,” Raskin said. “I hope other friends of Donald Trump get the message that they are no longer above the law in the United States.”
For the Justice Department, the decision to charge Bannon was not as simple as Trump’s foes have argued.
It is unusual for the department to bring contempt charges against government officials who refuse to comply with subpoenas. The last person charged with criminal contempt of Congress, Rita Lavelle, a former federal environmental official under President Ronald Reagan, was found not guilty in 1983 of failing to appear at a congressional subcommittee hearing. She was later sentenced to jail for lying to Congress.
But department legal opinions from 1984 and 2008 have since advised against prosecuting officials who comply with formal assertions of executive privilege.
And the department did not push back when Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign official, and Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state, refused to comply with a 2019 congressional inquiry, citing executive privilege. The two men were private citizens.
But this unusual break with the past was made under extraordinary circumstances: an investigation into whether the former president’s inner circle was privy to an attack on Congress meant to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
The case put Garland and the Justice Department into the fraught position of prosecuting a top aide to Trump, who remains the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Since Watergate, the department has often declined to criminally prosecute executive branch officials from previous administrations.
During cases in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, witnesses eventually complied with a committee’s subpoena after Congress moved to find them in criminal contempt.
But in more recent years, the Justice Department has declined to enforce congressional referrals for contempt when a sitting president has invoked executive privilege to prevent the testimony of one of his employees.
In 2015, the Justice Department under President Barack Obama said it would not seek criminal contempt charges against Lois Lerner, a former IRS official; and in 2019, the department under Trump made a similar decision, rebuffing Congress on behalf of Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.