WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on Tuesday in a showdown over whether he could be forced to testify in the panel’s Russia investigation.
Bannon walked into a closed-door meeting with House members Tuesday morning and was still being grilled Tuesday evening. Lawmakers wanted answers from him about President Donald Trump’s thinking when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
The committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said he issued the subpoena, but he declined to discuss why or what questions he hoped to compel Bannon to answer.
A person familiar with the subpoena said the committee issued the order after Bannon’s counsel advised him he did not have to answer lawmakers’ questions regarding his discussions with Trump. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private committee deliberations.
A spokeswoman for Bannon did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday afternoon. A White House official said the White House did not seek to exert executive privilege over Bannon — a move that would have barred him from answering certain questions — because they didn’t have to. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
At the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “no one” had encouraged Bannon not to be transparent during questioning but there’s a “process of what that looks like.”
“As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material. This is part of a judicially recognized process that goes back decades,” Sanders told reporters.
The committee also planned to press Bannon on other “executive actions” taken by Trump that have drawn interest from congressional investigators prying into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives, said another person, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about the closed-door session and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Those key elements bear directly on the criminal investigation now underway by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is charged with investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey or by taking other actions to thwart investigators.
The focus on Bannon follows his spectacular fall from power after being quoted in a book saying that he sees the president’s son and others as engaging in “treasonous” behavior for taking a meeting with Russians during the 2016 campaign.
In Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Bannon accuses Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of essentially betraying the nation by meeting with a group of Russian lawyers and lobbyists who they believed were ready to offer “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
More recently, Bannon has said he was not referring to Trump Jr. but rather to Manafort. Wolff stands by his account.
After the book’s release, Trump quickly disavowed “Sloppy Steve Bannon” and argued extensively there was no evidence of collusion between his presidential campaign and operatives tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bannon apologized a few days later but was stripped of his job leading the pro-Trump news site Breitbart News.
Bannon last year had largely avoided the scrutiny of congressional investigators, who instead focused much of their energy on trying to secure interviews with top witnesses like Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
But Bannon played a critical role in the campaign, the presidential transition and the White House — all periods of time now under scrutiny from congressional investigators looking for possible evidence of a connection between Trump’s operations and Russia.
Bannon recently retained the same lawyer being used by former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus and current White House general counsel Don McGahn. Neither Bannon nor his lawyer immediately responded to a request for comment Monday.
The House Intelligence Committee is speeding toward a conclusion of its interviews in its Russia investigation. The final result could be marred by partisan infighting, raising the probability that Republicans on the panel will issue one set of findings and the Democrats will issue their own report.