Washington: Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on Tuesday refused to answers questions from the House Intelligence Committee about his time working for President Donald Trump, provoking a subpoena from the panel's Republican chairman.
Bannon walked into a closed-door meeting with House members on Tuesday morning and was still being grilled Tuesday evening as part of the committee's investigation into Russian election inference. Lawmakers also wanted answers from him about Trump's thinking when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
The committee chairman, Devin Nunes of California, issued the subpoena after Bannon refused to answer questions about his time on the presidential transition or his work in the Trump White House, said Nunes spokesman Jack Langer. It's unclear if Bannon was more forthcoming after the issuance of the subpoena.
A spokeswoman for Bannon did not respond to multiple requests for comment on 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 recognised 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" behaviour 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 apologised a few days later but was stripped of his job leading the pro-Trump news site Breitbart News.
Bannon in 2017 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.
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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2018 07:12:05 IST