The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is expected to vote Thursday to hold Steve Bannon, one of former President Donald Trump’s closest allies, in criminal contempt of Congress after he defied a subpoena from the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
The action marks a significant escalation in how far the panel is willing to go to rebuke individuals who refuse to cooperate as it investigates the violent attack that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The vote by the full House to hold Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress will set up a referral to the Department of Justice, which would then have to decide whether to prosecute.
The passage in the full House comes after the committee formally approved holding Bannon in contempt on Tuesday night, setting up the House vote, which will stand as a warning to potential witnesses about the consequences of not cooperating with the investigation.
On Tuesday night, members of the committee blasted Bannon for refusing to cooperate with the panel’s probe and warned that he is “isolated” in doing so as other witnesses are working with the panel.
“Our goal is simple: We want Mr. Bannon to answer our questions. We want him to turn over whatever records he possesses that are relevant to the select committee’s investigation,” committee chairman, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said in his opening remarks.
Republican Rep Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of two Republicans on the committee, said during the meeting that “it appears that Mr. Bannon had substantial advance knowledge of the plans for January 6th and likely had an important role in formulating those plans.”
“The American people are entitled to Mr. Bannon’s first-hand testimony about all of these relevant facts,” she said.
Bannon has previously argued that he is unable to cooperate with the committee until matters of executive privilege are resolved by the courts.
His attorney has told the committee that “the executive privileges belong to President Trump” and “we must accept his direction and honor his invocation of executive privilege.”
“The plain fact here is that Mr. Bannon has no legal right to ignore the committee’s lawful subpoena,” Cheney said on Tuesday.
Next steps after the vote
Following the full House vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to certify the report to the United States attorney for the District of Columbia. Under law, this certification then requires the United States attorney to “bring the matter before the grand jury for its action,” but the Justice Department will also make its own determinations for prosecution.
“I expect the House will quickly adopt this referral to the Justice Department and that the US attorney will do his duty and prosecute Mr. Bannon for criminal contempt of Congress,” Thompson said on Tuesday.
The DC US attorney’s office has issued a statement on the Thursday vote, saying that the Justice Department will “evaluate the matter based on the facts and the law.”
“If the House of Representatives certifies a criminal contempt citation, the Department of Justice, as with all criminal referrals, will evaluate the matter based on the facts and the law, consistent with the Principles of Federal Prosecution,” said Bill Miller, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
Attorney General Merrick Garland is expected to appear as a witness at a House Judiciary Hearing on Thursday morning focused on oversight of the Department of Justice.
Any individual who is found liable for contempt of Congress would be guilty of a crime that may result in a fine and between one and 12 months’ imprisonment. But this process is rarely invoked and rarely leads to jail time.
Holding Bannon in criminal contempt through a prosecution could take years, and historically, criminal contempt cases have been derailed by appeals and acquittals.
As a result, the House’s pursuit of criminal charges may be more about making an example out of Bannon and sending a message to other potential witnesses.
“I want our witnesses to understand something very plainly. If you are thinking of following the path Mr. Bannon has gone down you are on notice that this is what you’ll face,” Thompson said on Tuesday.
“The process we’ve begun tonight is a grave one. It seldom happens and we’d rather avoid it altogether, but it’s not reserved just for Steve Bannon. If other witnesses defy this committee, if they fail to cooperate, we will be back in this room with a new report with the names of whoever else mistakenly believes they are above the law.”