The full United States House of Representatives has voted to charge Steve Bannon, a longtime political adviser to former President Donald Trump, with criminal contempt of Congress after he defied a subpoena from a committee investigating the deadly January 6 Capitol riot.
The House voted 229-202 on Thursday to send the contempt charge to the US Department of Justice where officials must decide whether to prosecute Bannon in federal courts.
At stake in the process is the effectiveness of the House’s January 6 probe, which Trump and his allies are resisting.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, who heads the Department of Justice, gave no indication on Thursday how the department would proceed in an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee.
“The department has a very long-standing policy of not commenting on potential investigations of actual or pending investigations,” Garland said. “This is a foundational element of our rule of law and norms.”
President Joe Biden, who has called the January 6 riot a “violent attempt” to hold “power”, has said he thinks the Department of Justice should enforce the House subpoenas. Leading House members have signalled they expect US prosecutors will take up the House referral.
The House January 6 committee is seeking testimony and documents from Bannon about conversations he had with Trump, Republican members of Congress, and other key figures in the days before the January 6 riot. Of particular interest is a meeting Bannon had with Trump supporters at a hotel in Washington, DC, on January 5.
Thousands of Trump supporters assembled on January 6 and marched on the US Capitol after hearing Trump claim in a fiery speech that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. Rioters stormed the Capitol where Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress were meeting in formal session to certify Biden’s win.
Federal authorities have arrested and charged 650 people for participation in the riot, Garland said on Thursday.
Trump filed a lawsuit on October 18 seeking to block the House probe from obtaining White House records on the deadly January 6 Capitol insurrection.
The January 6 committee is composed of seven Democrats and two Republicans appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top House Democrat, but Thursday’s House vote is likely to fall largely along partisan lines.
Only nine Republicans voted with Democrats to hold Bannon to account. Republican Representative Liz Cheney, the top Republican on the January 6 committee who was stripped of her number-three party leadership position after criticising Trump, had said she expected most Republicans to vote against the measure.
The panel’s Democratic chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson, led the debate on the bill along with Cheney, a rare show of bipartisanship on the House floor.
Failure by the Department of Justice to enforce the House subpoena of Bannon would undermine Congress’s authority, George Washington University law professor and former Department of Justice official Stephen Saltzburg told The Associated Press.
If Congress cannot perform its oversight job, the message sent to “the general public is these subpoenas are a joke”, Saltzburg said.
In addition to Bannon, the committee has subpoenaed former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino and national security and defence aide Kash Patel. All three are said to be cooperating with the committee.
Former Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark also has been subpoenaed by the committee to discuss Trump’s efforts to use the Department of Justice to overturn the 2020 election results.
With the House vote to hold Bannon in contempt on Thursday, the matter now goes to the US attorney’s office in Washington, DC. It would then be up to prosecutors in that office whether to present the case to a grand jury for possible criminal charges.
“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 in Washington.