By Mary Clare Jalonick
October 22, 2021 — 7.45am
Washington: The House voted on Friday AEDT to hold Steve Bannon, a longtime ally and aide to former president Donald Trump, in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the committee investigating the violent January 6 Capitol insurrection.
In a rare show of bipartisanship on the House floor, the committee’s Democratic chairman, Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson, led the floor debate along with Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of two Republicans on the panel. Still, the vote was 229-202 with most GOP lawmakers voting “no,” despite the potential consequences for Congress if witnesses are allowed to ignore its demands.
The House vote sends the matter to the US attorney’s office in Washington, where it will now be up to prosecutors in that office to decide whether to present the case to a grand jury for possible criminal charges.
On Tuesday, the January 6 committee voted 9-0 to recommend the contempt charges after Bannon missed a scheduled interview with the panel last week, citing a letter from Trump’s lawyer that directed him not to answer questions.
The committee noted that Bannon did not work at the White House at the time of the attack, and that he not only spoke with Trump before it but also promoted the protests on his podcast and predicted there would be unrest. On January 5, Bannon said that “all hell is going to break loose”.
The partisan split over Bannon’s subpoena — and over the committee’s investigation in general — is emblematic of the raw tensions that still grip Congress nine months after the Capitol attack. Democrats have vowed to comprehensively probe the assault in which hundreds of Trump’s supporters battered their way past police, injured dozens of officers and interrupted the electoral count certifying President Joe Biden’s victory.
Lawmakers on the investigating committee say they will move swiftly and forcefully to punish anyone who won’t cooperate with the probe.
“We will not allow anyone to derail our work because our work is too important,” Thompson said ahead of the vote.
Republicans call it a “witch hunt,” say it is a waste of time and argue that Congress should be focusing on more important matters.
Indiana Representative Jim Banks, leading the GOP opposition on the floor, called the probe an “illicit criminal investigation into American citizens” and said Bannon is a “Democrat party boogeyman”.
Cheney and Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger are the only two Republicans on the January 6 panel. Both have openly criticised Trump and his role in fomenting the insurrection, even as other Republicans have mostly remained silent in the face of Trump’s falsehoods about massive fraud in the election. Trump’s claims were rejected by election officials, courts across the country and by his own attorney-general.
Lawmakers on the panel said Bannon was alone in completely defying its subpoena, while more than a dozen other subpoenaed witnesses were at least negotiating with them.
“Mr. Bannon’s own public statements make clear he knew what was going to happen before it did, and thus he must have been aware of -- and may well have been involved in -- the planning of everything that played out on that day,” Cheney said ahead of the vote. “The American people deserve to know what he knew and what he did.”
Even if the Justice Department does decide to prosecute, the case could take years to play out — potentially pushing past the 2022 election when Republicans could win control of the House and end the investigation.
There’s still considerable uncertainty about whether the department will prosecute, despite Democratic demands for action. It’s a decision that will determine not only the effectiveness of the House investigation but also the strength of Congress’ power to call witnesses and demand information.
While the department has historically been reluctant to use its prosecution power against witnesses found in contempt of Congress, the circumstances are exceptional as lawmakers investigate the worst attack on the US Capitol in two centuries.
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