As Wilford Brimley said in Absence of Malice, “Wonderful thing, subpoenas,” and former White House adviser Steve Bannon should know — he’s gotten a couple of them recently. One came yesterday from the House Intelligence Committee after he initially refused to answer some questions in a contentious closed-door session, saying the White House had advised him to keep quiet:
Sources: Steve Bannon told House Intelligence Committee that the WH told him not to answer questions about his time working alongside President Trump pic.twitter.com/1c2ZGxBtXY
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 17, 2018
Bannon also told the panel that he’d also been served with a subpoena earlier from the grand jury working with special counsel Robert Mueller. Bannon seems to be taking that a little more seriously. According to NBC News, Bannon plans to cooperate fully with Mueller, which may relieve him of the need to go to the grand jury at all.
Bannon revealed he’d been subpoenaed by the grand jury when he met with lawmakers Tuesday behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, where he was questioned for more than 10 hours.
During the course of questioning, Bannon told members of the House Intelligence committee that the White House had instructed him not to answer questions related to his tenure in the administration and the transition period between the election and inauguration, citing a desire to exert executive privilege. The committee responded by issuing a separate subpoena to compel his responses to lawmakers.
Bannon is expected to be more forthcoming with Mueller’s team. “He’ll answer any questions” Mueller wants, one source close to Bannon told NBC News.
The White House later denied that they’d asked Bannon or anyone else to keep quiet, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders claiming that they’d urged everyone to be “transparent” with all investigations. However, it wouldn’t have been entirely illegitimate to require that some conversations didn’t get disclosed. Executive privilege exists to protect the process of advising presidents on policy and politics, as long as the conversations are not part of a criminal conspiracy or a crime in and of themselves. Congress is not supposed to intrude on executive policy consultations as long as they’re legitimate. If Donald Trump sees those conversations as entirely legitimate, then it would be also entirely legitimate to remind Bannon and other aides not to intrude on areas for which he might want to claim executive privilege.
Those claims do not diminish in grand jury presentations, either, but Aaron Blake thinks that Mueller might be hoping to catch Bannon in a glib moment:
The former top campaign aide and White House adviser thus far hasn’t been nearly as central to the Russia probe as other current and former members of Trump’s inner circle — people such as Flynn, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. Even Manafort. Bannon wasn’t in that Russian-lawyer meeting with Manafort, Kushner and Trump Jr., for instance, and he wasn’t present when the decision was made to fire Comey. Bannon has also retained the same lawyer as former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus and White House counsel Don McGahn, and both of them have talked to Mueller’s team without having subpoenas thrown their way.
Could it have anything to do with the Michael Wolff book, which quoted Bannon labeling that meeting with a Russian lawyer as being “treasonous” and as believing Mueller’s probe was “all about money laundering”? Bannon reportedly told Wolff: “The Kushner s‑‑‑ is greasy. They’re going to go right through that.” That just happens to be when the subpoena lands? …
Another intriguing possibility is that Mueller wants to take advantage of Bannon’s tendency to spout off in real time and in an unforgiving setting. While plenty have focused on Bannon’s comments in Wolff’s book last week, this isn’t the first time he has publicly acknowledged serious errors by the Trump team with regards to Russia. During a “60 Minutes” interview back in September, you might recall, Bannon labeled Comey’s firing the single biggest mistake in modern political history. Perhaps Mueller just wants to make sure Bannon is afforded the opportunity to, well, be as candid as possible.
It’s probably more simple than that. After news broke last night about the grand jury “invitation,” news outlets hinted that Bannon might agree to a voluntary interview instead, which is why NBC is reporting this morning on Bannon’s inclination to answer all of Mueller’s questions. It’s a leverage play, and it seems to be working. Bannon can bring an attorney to a voluntary interview to help him navigate the questioning, which he can’t do at a grand jury hearing. Mueller’s playing hardball, and Bannon’s trying to keep from getting struck out. Wonderful thing, subpoenas … at least from grand juries and special prosecutors, where consequences tend to be more permanent.
Update: Wonderful thing, subpoenas …
Bannon cuts a deal: Will interview with Mueller’s team to avoid going before grand jury for now, via @KaraScannell
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) January 17, 2018
As I suspected. This was likely the point of the exercise.