US prosecutors have accused former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon of wilfully ignoring a congressional subpoena in open defiance of the US government.
Bannon’s trial for contempt of Congress charges, stemming from refusing to hand over information subpoenaed by a congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, began on Tuesday.
“It wasn’t optional. It wasn’t a request, and it wasn’t an invitation. It was mandatory,” Assistant US Attorney Amanda Vaughn told jurors in her opening statement.
“The defendant’s failure to comply was deliberate. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a mistake. It was a choice.”
But his lawyers argued on Tuesday that the charges against him are politically motivated and that Bannon was engaged in good-faith negotiations with the congressional committee when he was charged.
“No one ignored the subpoena,” Evan Corcoran told the jury.
In reality, he said, another one of Bannon’s then-lawyers, Robert Costello, contacted an attorney for the committee to express some of Bannon’s concerns about testifying.
“They did what two lawyers do. They negotiated,” Corcoran said, adding that Bannon and his legal team believed “the dates of the subpoena were not fixed; they were flexible”.
Bannon reversed course this month and said he wanted to testify before a public committee hearing, nearly 10 months after defying the subpoena. There has been no indication of any plan to have him do so, as the committee likely would want him to first testify in closed sessions in order to cover a wide range of matters. Trump told Bannon he was waiving any executive privilege claim.
An unofficial adviser to Trump at the time of the Capitol attack, Bannon is charged with defying a subpoena from the January 6 committee that sought his records and testimony.
He was indicted in November on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress, one month after the Justice Department received a congressional referral. Each count carries a minimum of 30 days of jail and as long as a year behind bars if Bannon is convicted.
US District Judge Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee, had previously ruled that significant elements of Bannon’s planned defence were irrelevant and could not be introduced in court. He ruled last week that Bannon could not claim he believed he was covered by executive privilege or that he was acting on the advice of his lawyers.
Bannon, 68, had been one of the most prominent of the Trump-allied holdouts refusing to testify before the committee.
Last month, the Justice Department charged Peter Navarro, a former adviser to Trump, with two counts of contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the committee.
Bannon had argued that his testimony was protected by Trump’s claim of executive privilege, which allows presidents to withhold confidential information from the courts and the legislative branch.
Trump has repeatedly asserted executive privilege — even though he is a former, not current president — to try to block witness testimony and the release of White House documents. The Supreme Court in January ruled against Trump’s efforts to stop the National Archives from cooperating with the committee after a lower court judge, Tanya S Chutkan, noted in part, “Presidents are not kings”.
Bannon’s trial comes as the congressional committee presents its findings on the January 6 riots in a series of public hearings that have attempted to link Trump to the attack.
The next hearing is set for Thursday evening. The panel announced on Tuesday that the session will proceed despite Congressman Bennie Thompson, the committee chair, testing positive for COVID-19.