Showdown: Bannon defies House Intel subpoena in standoff over questions

Which lion’s den would you be more willing to endure? A special counsel investigation with every incentive to find crimes on anyone? Or a Congressional hearing in which panel members are in open warfare and may use witnesses as cannon fodder?

Steve Bannon chose Door Number One, at least for now:

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is not expected to appear before the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday, risking being held in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena, according to a source close to the process.

Escalating a tense standoff with the panel, Bannon isn’t planning on showing up because the White House and committee haven’t reached an agreement over the scope of the questioning, the source said.

Rep. Mike Conaway, the Republican running the committee’s Russia probe, told reporters Monday evening he expected Bannon to comply with the subpoena demands of the committee and was unaware of any deal to limit the answers he would provide to the panel.

Bannon already has indicated that he will meet with Robert Mueller’s team under a separate grand-jury subpoena. That in itself could set up a potential conflict over the scope of questioning as the House investigation might overlap with Mueller’s probe and complicate the issue of testimony later in any subsequent prosecution, especially if the panel has to offer some form of immunity to get Bannon’s testimony. The grand jury subpoena was the first known issued for Mueller’s investigation, but it appears Mueller will use this to convince Bannon to testify more willingly to investigators in private.

That meeting will come soon, NBC reports:

He might not have much leverage in that situation, but Bannon has more to play with the House Intelligence Committee. Later this morning, Trey Gowdy announced that they would continue to negotiate the scope of Bannon’s questioning in an attempt to get him to appear:

Maybe the third time’s the charm, but it’s not clear what Bannon has to offer anyway. His formal role in the campaign started very late in the cycle, two months after the Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, and certainly long before George Papadopoulos tried a little back-channel diplomacy with Russia and caught the FBI’s interest. Paul Manafort departed the campaign just days later, and Carter Page — the subject of the FBI’s FISA surveillance warrant — would leave the campaign six weeks later. Mueller’s interest seems mainly stoked by Bannon’s comments about Jared Kushner in Michael Wolff’s gossipy book Fire and Fury, which seem mainly to consist of frustrated venting rather than anything substantial.

If that’s the case, then Bannon won’t have any problems with Mueller or the grand jury — as long as he lets his lawyers run the show, of course. However, he has to figure that there will be a number of people on the House Intelligence Committee that would like his scalp for political reasons rather than strictly legal issues, which makes that a much less attractive venue in which to appear. At this point, Bannon probably figures that he can defy a subpoena and that Trump’s Department of Justice won’t leap to prosecute it, and he’s probably correct. If he’s working with special counsel investigators, Mueller won’t be too anxious to enforce a contempt referral either. Unless the HPSCI offers him a highly narrowed scope of questioning, a Bannon appearance at their hearing seems unlikely.