WASHINGTON (AP) — Steve Bannon’s contempt of Congress trial went to the jury Friday, as the panel began deliberating the fate of the longtime Donald Trump ally.
Bannon is charged with two counts of criminal contempt for refusing to appear before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol and the events leading up to the deadly riot. Each count carries a minimum of 30 days in jail and up to a year.
In closing arguments Friday morning, both sides re-emphasized their primary positions from the trial. The prosecution maintained that Bannon willfully ignored clear and explicit deadlines, and the defense claimed Bannon believed those deadlines were flexible and subject to negotiation.
Bannon was served with a subpoena on Sept. 23 last year ordering him to provide requested documents to the committee by Oct. 7 and appear in person by Oct. 14. Bannon’s attorney Evan Corcoran told jurors Friday in his closing arguments that those deadlines were mere “placeholders” while lawyers on each side negotiated terms.
Corcoran said the committee “rushed to judgement” because it “wanted to make an example of Steve Bannon.”
Corcoran also hinted that the government’s main witness, Jan. 6 committee chief counsel Kristin Amerling, was personally biased. Amerling admitted on the stand that she is a lifelong Democrat and has been friends with one of the prosecutors for years. Corcoran also vaguely hinted that the signature of Jan. 6 committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) looked different on the subpoena than on other letters but dropped that topic when the prosecution objected.
The House Select Committee held its last hearing of the month Thursday, detailing Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021. (CNN, POOL)
Prosecutors focused on the series of letters exchanged between the Jan. 6 committee and Bannon’s lawyers. The correspondence shows Thompson immediately dismissing Bannon’s claim that he was exempted by Trump’s claim of executive privilege and explicitly threatening Bannon with criminal prosecution.
“The defense wants to make this hard, difficult and confusing,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Vaughn in her closing statement. “This is not difficult. This is not hard. There were only two witnesses because it’s as simple as it seems.”
Bannon declined to testify Thursday and his lawyers did not call any witnesses, instead arguing the judge should dismiss the charges as unproven. U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee, didn’t immediately rule on the request.
Bannon’s team told the judge that Bannon saw no point in testifying at his trial since Nichols’ previous rulings had gutted his avenues of defense. Among other things, Bannon’s team was barred from calling as witnesses House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or members of the House panel.
Another Bannon lawyer, David Schoen, said Bannon “understands that he would be barred from telling the true facts.”
Bannon was serving in an unofficial advisory capacity to Trump at the time of the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. The committee, which held a prime time hearing Thursday that included Bannon comments of Trump’s post-election strategy, wanted to speak with Bannon because it had information that he was actively involved in planning, logistics and fundraising for Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and stop Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.
The panel’s subpoena demanded any documents or communications relating to Trump and others in his orbit, including lawyer Rudy Giuliani and extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
Much of the trial testimony has been built around Amerling, who explained the extent to which the committee tried to engage Bannon and the timeline leading up to the missed deadline.
During cross examination Corcoran asked Amerling whether it was common for witnesses to appear before a congressional committee several weeks after the deadline date on a subpoena. Amerling answered “yes,” but added only “when witnesses are cooperating with the committee.”
Amerling said Bannon was uncooperative from the start, so there was no such leeway.
The committee heard nothing from Bannon until after the first deadline had passed, at which point his lawyer sent a letter to the committee stating that Bannon was protected by Trump’s claim of executive privilege and would not be providing documents or appearing. The committee responded in writing that Trump’s claim was invalid — Trump was no longer president, and Bannon was not employed at the White House at the time of the riot.
Vaughn told jurors on Thursday that the subpoena issued to Bannon “wasn’t optional. It wasn’t a request, and it wasn’t an invitation. It was mandatory.” She added: “The defendant’s failure to comply was deliberate. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a mistake. It was a choice.”
Bannon was indicted in November on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress, one month after the Justice Department received the House panel’s referral.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Jan. 6 committee hearings at https://apnews.com/hub/capitol-siege.
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