Prosecutors opened the trial with the simple argument: The Trump ally decided he was “above the law”. They said his defiance of the January 6 panel was a “choice.”…writes Ashok Nilakantan
Close Donald Trump aide, media executive, and banker Steve Bannon was accused by prosecutors of thinking that he was “above the law” in not abiding by requests to appear before the Congressional committee investigating Jan 6 “Capitol Hill Insurrection” after several requests and even after being subpoenaed last year in October.
Bannon, who was in close touch with Trump before and after during the Jan 6 riots, had allegedly said in a message that “tomorrow (January 6, 2021) all hell is going to break loose”. It’s nothing like you ever imagined before, he had said indicating he had advance knowledge of what was going to unfold on January 6 because of being in touch with Trump in those crucial moments and days. He is standing trial for criminal charges for contempt for not obeying the subpoenas served on him.
Prosecutors opened the trial with the simple argument: The Trump ally decided he was “above the law”. They said his defiance of the January 6 panel was a “choice.”
Bannon’s lawyer argued that “no one believed” the Trump ally would testify in October 2021. Before opening arguments, Bannon’s lawyers tried again to delay the criminal trial but failed, according to various media reports.
Kicking off Bannon’s trial, federal prosecutors on Tuesday stressed their view of the case’s sheer simplicity: the longtime Trump ally received a deadline to answer a subpoena from the Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack. And Bannon just refused to comply.
“This case is about the defendant thumbing his nose at the orderly processes of our government,” said Assistant US Attorney Amanda Vaughn, in an opening argument to jurors. “It is that simple,” she added.
In a nearly 20-minute argument, Vaughn recounted how the House committee sought to question Bannon about his knowledge of the events leading up to the insurrection at the Capitol and gave him due dates last October to sit for questioning and turn over documents. Bannon then deliberately snubbed the House panel, she said, in spite of warnings that his defiance could result in the very criminal charges he now faces. “It wasn’t optional. It wasn’t a request, and it wasn’t an invitation. It was mandatory,” Vaughn said. “The defendant decided he was above the law… and that’s why we’re here today.”
“He didn’t get stuck on a broken-down Metro car. He just refused to follow the rules,” Vaughn was quoted by the media as saying. Vaughn’s opening argument seemed to head off Bannon’s expected defense: that he considered the House committee’s deadlines negotiable and not fixed.
Also, Bannon tried to seek refuge under the President’s executive privilege saying he could not testify unless Trump waived it, and surprisingly, Trump waived it. But the Congressional select committee said he was not entitled to the privilege as he was not physically present on the fateful day in the White House.
In his own opening argument, Bannon’s defense lawyer Evan Corcoran underscored the Trump ally’s time as an advisor to the former President and noted his past involvement with a “media company,” in an apparent reference to Breitbart News. “The evidence is going to be crystal clear: No one, no one believed that Steve Bannon was going to appear on October 14, 2021,” Corcoran said.
A grand jury indicted Bannon in November, weeks after that deadline, on a pair of contempt of Congress charges – each carrying a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. In his opening argument, Corcoran said the charges amounted to a politically motivated attack. “Politics is the lifeblood of the US House of Representatives,” Corcoran said. “Politics invades every decision that they make.”
Following Tuesday’s opening arguments, prosecutors called the House January 6 Committee’s deputy staff director and chief counsel, Kristin Amerling, who stressed the “urgency” of the congressional panel’s inquiry. If Republicans retake the House majority in the upcoming midterm elections (November 8), they are expected to dissolve the January committee. “The select committee is looking at a violent assault on the United States Capitol, on law enforcement officials, on our democratic institutions. And we have a limited amount of time,” she said.
The opening arguments and Amerling’s testimony unfolded after a bumpy start to the trial, as Bannon’s defense lawyers, federal prosecutors, and the judge all reportedly quarrelled over what evidence could be presented to the jury. After multiple failed attempts to push back the trial, Corcoran asked again for a delay, saying the defense team needed a month to adjust its strategy in light of what he called a “seismic shift” in the case. “There are a lot of moving pieces,” Corcoran said. “We simply have not done the type of defense preparation we would have.”
US District Court Judge Carl Nichols however rejected the request. But the judge, a Trump appointee confirmed in 2019, did briefly entertain a one-day delay, while defense lawyers and prosecutors wrangled over to what extent Bannon’s correspondence with the House January 6 committee should be redacted – or blacked out – in the evidence shown to jurors.
Ahead of the trial, Nichols handed down a string of rulings that limited Bannon’s defenses, preventing him from arguing, for instance, that executive privilege excused his defiance of the House January 6 committee. But Nichols indicated that Bannon could raise a defense that he believed that the deadlines to respond to the House January 6 committee’s subpoena were negotiable and not fixed.
However, Judge Nichols said: “I don’t think it could have been clearer.”
Much of the drama of the Bannon trial has been about its timing. Will this trial be short and straightforward (like prosecutors foresee) or long and more complicated (like Bannon hopes)? Would it be delayed for a month or longer, or could it even head to deliberations before the select committee prime-time hearing Thursday night?
Only a handful of witnesses have been identified in both sides’ plans for the trial, meaning that the proceedings are still on track to take just a few days. The question now is whether Bannon’s charges will be deliberated by the jury before Thursday’s January 6 committee hearing where press aide Sarah Mathews and Deputy National Security Advisor (NSC) to the then President Donald Trump, Mathew Pottinger are scheduled to depose before the select committee prime time.