Steve Bannon's Contempt Trial To Start: What To Expect From Proceedings
Donald Trump's ex-adviser faces a contempt of Congress charge—the last conviction for which came nearly 50 years ago.Bannon has vowed that the charges against him will become a "misdemeanor from hell" for the Biden administration, but legal experts have said that the trial will likely be quick. At a July 11 hearing, the former Breitbart editor's legal strategy was severely damaged, after Bannon's lawyer David Shoen asked U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols, "what's the point of going to trial if there are no defenses?" Nichols replied: "Agreed.
© Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post via Getty Image Steve Bannon Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post via Getty Image
- A jury needed just three hours to find Steve Bannon guilty of contempt of Congress.
- Bannon tried to point to his recent offer to testify before the House January 6 committee.
- Prosecutors argued that Bannon saw himself as "above the law" and brazenly defied the House.
Steve Bannon was found guilty Friday of criminal contempt of Congress in connection with his defiance of the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
A jury in Washington, DC, reached the verdict after nearly three hours of deliberation, handing the Justice Department a decisive victory in a case stemming from a House referral recommending that the longtime Trump ally and onetime White House chief strategist face charges.
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Bannon declined to testify in his own defense or call any witnesses to the stand. But he emerged from court after each day of the proceedings to address reporters and rail against the House January 6 committee, at one point accusing its members of lacking the "guts" to testify against him at the trial.
As he left court Friday, Bannon pledged to appeal the conviction, declaring he had lost the "battle" but not the "war."
"I only have one disappointment, and that is the gutless members of that show trial committee — the J6 committee — didn't have the guts to come down here and testify in open court," Bannon said Friday.
Matt Graves, the Biden-appointed US attorney in Washington, DC, hailed the verdict and said Bannon's subpoena from the House was "not an invitation that could be rejected or ignored."
Steve Bannon found guilty of criminal contempt of Congress
Steve Bannon found guilty of criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to appear before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. © Provided by Yahoo News US Steve Bannon speaks to the media as he leaves federal court in Washington on Thursday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP) Bannon was found guilty of two counts of criminal contempt — one for refusing to appear for a deposition before the panel and the other for refusing to produce requested documents.
"Mr. Bannon had an obligation to appear before the House Select Committee to give testimony and provide documents," Graves said. "His refusal to do so was deliberate and now a jury has found that he must pay the consequences."
The House voted in October to hold Bannon in contempt for refusing to sit for questioning or turn over documents to the nine-member committee investigating the January 6 attack and former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Within weeks of that vote referring Bannon to the Justice Department for prosecution, a grand jury indicted Bannon on a pair of contempt of Congress charges, each carrying a maximum sentence of a year in prison and $100,000 fine.
The jury of eight men and four women found Bannon guilty on each of those two counts.
Ahead of Bannon's trial, a federal judge made a series of rulings that severely limited his defenses, preventing the former Trump White House advisor from arguing that executive privilege excused his outright refusal to appear before the House committee. Judge Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee confirmed in 2019, also blocked Bannon from arguing that he defied the House committee based on his lawyer's advice.
Steve Bannon found guilty of contempt charges
Steve Bannon was found guilty of both contempt charges against him over his defiance of a House Jan. 6 committee subpoena. Leading up to the trial, Bannon had vowed to fight against the "misdemeanor from hell" and go "medieval on these people," but when time came for the trial, he ultimately opted not to testify or call on any witnesses in his defense. Charges for contempt entail between 30 days and one year in prison per charge. The decision comes after a mere three hours of deliberations.
Prosecutors argued that Bannon "decided he was above the law" and brazenly snubbed the House committee" when he blew off October deadlines to sit for questioning and turn over subpoenaed records. In a closing argument Friday, assistant US attorney Molly Gaston pointed at Bannon and said, "This is a simple case about a man — that man, Steve Bannon — who didn't show up."
Steve Bannon on trial: Meet 8 key players in the Trump ally's criminal contempt of Congress case
- Jury selection began Monday in the criminal trial of Steve Bannon on contempt of Congress charges.
- Bannon has vowed to go "medieval," but several pre-trial rulings have left him almost defenseless.
- Opening arguments and witness testimony are expected to begin Monday.
Wearing two black button-down shirts beneath a matching dark blazer, Steve Bannon strode into a federal courthouse in his signature double-collared style Monday to stand trial on contempt of Congress charges.
Just as his fashion choice defied the July heat in Washington, DC, jury selection commenced in spite of Bannon's last-ditch attempts to delay the trial in light of the publicity surrounding the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack.
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Bannon has pledged to make his case the "misdemeanor from hell" for the Biden administration, and as his trial neared, he vowed on his podcast to go "medieval." But Bannon now is virtually defenseless following a string of pre-trial rulings that limited arguments his lawyers had hoped to raise.
The jurors ultimately seated for Bannon's case will hand down the verdict, but a broader cast — including lawyers, an FBI agent, and a veteran of former President Donald Trump's impeachment defense team — will shape the closely-watched proceedings. Here are the key players to watch.
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A grand jury indicted Steve Bannon in November on a pair of contempt of Congress charges, just weeks after the House voted to recommend that the Justice Department prosecute him over his defiance of the nine-member panel investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
The formal referral came after Bannon blew off October deadlines to respond to a House subpoena seeking records and testimony. In the face of that subpoena, Bannon said his conversations with Trump were covered by executive privilege.
But legal experts noted that, by January 6, 2021, Bannon was years removed from his official role as White House chief strategist in the Trump administration. And even if his conversations with Trump were covered, legal experts said, Bannon would have still needed to appear before the committee and invoke privilege on a question-by-question basis.
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Ahead of his trial, Bannon reversed course and said he would be willing to testify after all before the House January 6 committee. Bannon attributed his about-face to a recent letter from Trump waiving a purported claim of executive privilege.
Prosecutors dismissed the offer as a "last-ditch attempt to avoid accountability." But Nichols, the judge, has left open the possibility of allowing Bannon to raise his recent offer at trial.
Bannon's legal team said in a court filing that the former Trump advisor "will testify," but as with any criminal trial, the decision of whether to call the defendant to the stand is likely to come down to the last minute. If convicted, Bannon faces a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000 on each of the two contempt of Congress charges.
Judge Carl Nichols
A Trump appointee confirmed in 2019, Judge Carl Nichols was randomly assigned to Bannon's prosecution in November.
At first glance, Bannon might have appeared to hit the judge-drawing lottery in having a Trump appointee preside over his case. But Nichols, who already had a record ruling against Trump, quickly dispelled any such notion.
In April, Nichols ruled that Bannon could not argue that he was relying in good faith on his lawyer's advice when he defied the House January 6 committee. The decision removed a central pillar of Bannon's planned trial defense — and it was just the beginning.
As the trial drew near, Nichols repeatedly rejected Bannon's request to delay the proceeding in light of publicity around the House January 6 committee's series of public hearings. Nichols stood by that decision even after Bannon renewed his request last week, pointing to a CNN documentary that aired Sunday and footage the House January 6 panel played earlier in the week of the Trump ally predicting on January 5, 2021, that "all hell will break loose tomorrow."
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A onetime Supreme Court clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, Nichols was a partner at the law firm Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr before his confirmation to the federal bench. Nichols previously served in the George W. Bush administration as a top official at the Justice Department, where he argued that the president's close advisors have "absolute immunity" and can ignore congressional subpoenas.
Evan Corcoran, defense lawyer
In the final year of the Trump administration, Evan Corcoran was nearly recruited to join the Justice Department as the second-ranking official in the US attorney's office in Washington, DC.
Corcoran is now defending Bannon against that same federal prosecutor's office.
A former federal prosecutor, Corcoran joined Bannon's defense team in November. On Monday, he led the Bannon team's questioning of potential jurors, and he has spearheaded some of the defense arguments in pretrial hearings.
But Bannon's case is not the only high-profile prosecution that Corcoran is handling in connection with January 6.
Corcoran is also representing Michael Riley, a longtime Capitol police officer who was indicted on charges that he obstructed the Justice Department's investigation into the January 6 attack by contacting a rioter and encouraging him to remove social media posts placing him at the scene of the violence that day. Riley pleaded not guilty and resigned from the Capitol police force.
Amanda Vaughn and Molly Gaston, assistant US attorneys
From the first weeks after Bannon's indictment, federal prosecutors made clear that they saw the case as simple.
"In our view, this is a very straightforward case about whether or not the defendant showed up," assistant US attorney Amanda Vaughn said at a court hearing last year. In court papers, she and another prosecutor said they expected the Justice Department to need just "one day of testimony"to prove Bannon's guilt.
The two prosecutors both bring experience with high-profile cases.
In 2018, Gaston handled the prosecution of former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, who was found not guilty of misleading the Justice Department about his work for Ukraine while in private practice. The prosecutor spun off of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
Gaston was also among the prosecutors who weighed charges against Andrew McCabe, the onetime acting FBI director, in an investigation that centered on whether he lied to internal investigators about a media leak. In a February 2020 letter to McCabe's defense lawyers, Gaston and another top prosecutor in the US attorney's office said the decision not to bring charges came after "careful consideration."
Vaughn and Gaston are also involved in the prosecution of former Trump advisor Peter Navarro, who was charged in June with contempt of Congress after defying the House January 6 committee. Navarro has pleaded not guilty and is set to stand trial in November.
Robert Costello, lawyer and trial witness for Bannon
After representing Bannon in his dealings with the House January 6 committee, Robert Costello joined his defense team as he faced contempt of Congress charges. Costello has since withdrawn as a lawyer from the case to pave the way for his next role: witness.
Bannon's defense lawyers plan to call Costello to the witness stand to testify about "his interactions with the Select Committee and Mr. Bannon."
It is unclear what trial strategy Bannon's lawyers will wring out of the several rulings limiting his defense. But Costello is likely to address to what extent he and Bannon believed the deadlines to respond to the subpoenas were moveable and open for negotiation.
Nichols has suggested that Bannon could argue that he understood the deadline to be "malleable."
In earlier court proceedings, the judge bristled at how the Justice Department seized Costello's email and phone logs as part of the investigation into Bannon. The search for those records inadvertently ensnared the records of others who share Costello's name.
At a hearing in March, Costello wryly introduced himself as the "actual Robert Costello they were looking for."
Kristin Amerling, deputy staff director and chief counsel of the House January 6 committee
Prosecutors plan to need just one day of testimony to prove Bannon's guilt, and they have identified two witnesses to make what they see as a simple, straightforward case.
Ahead of the trial, prosecutors said they plan to call Kristin Amerling, the House January 6 committee's deputy staff director and chief counsel, to "testify about the Committee's investigation, its issuance of a subpoena to the Defendant, and the Defendant's default."
Amerling joined the House January 6 committee in July 2021, with the panel's chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, naming her as among the "professional, patriotic public servants" who would deliver a "comprehensive investigation into the attack, to find the facts and to prevent such an assault from ever again occurring."
In a previous stint in government, Amerling served as deputy general counsel at the Transportation Department, where she advised on congressional oversight and regulation. Before that, she was the chief counsel to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform — a pair of panels with broad oversight.
"In these congressional roles," the House January 6 committee said, "she helped lead high-profile investigations into and oversight of the federal government's mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina, the War in Iraq, and the 2008 financial market meltdown."
Later, Gaston pointed to Bannon declaring, "I stand with Trump," in October 2021 after receiving a House subpoena.
"The defendant chose allegiance to Donald Trump over compliance with the law," Gaston said.
Bannon's defense lawyer Evan Corcoran flatly declared the Trump ally was "innocent" and argued the contempt charges were fueled by politics. In a closing argument that drew multiple objections from Gaston, Corcoran recalled listening to the news about foreign countries where "people in power" attempt to "silence the opposition."
Corcoran urged jurors to uphold what he called an essential principle of criminal prosecutions in the US: that "politics can play no role."
Going into the trial, Bannon appeared to face long odds, and his lawyers made a point of preserving the chance to appeal several rulings. Bannon's lawyer David Schoen argued that the defense team was "badly stymied" by its inability, based on a past ruling from Nichols, to call members of the House January 6 committee, namely its chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson.
While the defense team felt handcuffed by the pre-trial rulings, Nichols did allow them to raise Bannon's recent offer to testify before the House committee after months of stonewalling. Bannon attributed his reversal to a letter from Trump, received about a week before trial, purporting to waive executive privilege.
In a rebuttal to Corcoran's closing argument, prosecutor Amanda Vaughn told jurors that Bannon's sudden decision to testify was designed to "convince you that a deadline is not a deadline."
"Give me a break," Vaughn told jurors. "Don't be fooled by that."
Vaughn described Bannon's offer as "nothing but a ploy" — and "not even a good one" because he still had not agreed to turn over documents.
Prosecutors objected ahead of trial to Bannon raising his offer to testify, which they had described in pre-trial court filings as a "last-ditch attempt to avoid accountability." But at trial, they appeared to see an opening to make Bannon's offer to testify backfire against him.
In her questioning of Kristin Amerling, a top lawyer for the House January 6 committee, Vaughn underscored that the offer to testify came just before Bannon was set to stand trial. And, with the end of the current Congress approaching, Amerling said Bannon's months of defiance had cost the House January 6 committee precious time in its investigation of the Capitol attack and buildup to January 6.
Amerling testified that the House January 6 committee took an interest in Bannon, in part, because he predicted on his podcast a day before January 6 that "all hell is going to break loose tomorrow."
Corcoran questioned Amerling's impartiality in his closing argument, telling jurors that she has worked for Democratic members of Congress for 20 years.
"Does she seem like somebody who's used to getting their way?" Corcoran asked. "Why was Steve Bannon singled out?"
Corcoran also called attention to how Gaston and Amerling overlapped on a House committee years ago and were part of the same book club.
"Make no mistake," Corcoran said. I'm not against book club."
Addressing that portion of Corcoran's closing, Vaughn questioned whether he had understood Amerling's testimony.
"I don't know what courtroom Mr. Corcoran was in," she said. "But all I learned from that testimony is that Ms. Amerling and Ms. Gaston are book club dropouts."
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Justice Department staffs up team investigating efforts to overturn Trump's loss .
A top public corruption prosecutor will supervise the team investigating former President Donald Trump and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images A corruption prosecutor is helping with "investigatory efforts" in the sprawling January 6 inquiry. JP Cooney previously oversaw the prosecutions of Trump allies Steve Bannon and Roger Stone. The staff move offers one more sign that the Justice Department is ramping up its inquiry into Trump.