WASHINGTON – Republicans are rallying around former White House adviser Steve Bannon after his indictment on charges of contempt of Congress on Friday, warning that Democrats’ efforts to force Bannon to comply with what they say is an unfair subpoena paves the way for them to do the same if they take back the House in 2022.
Bannon, like former president Donald Trump, has refused to comply with an order from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection to turn over records and testify about his actions leading up to the attack, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral college win.
Bannon is expected to turn himself in to law enforcement Monday ahead of a court appearance that afternoon. Democrats and a handful of anti-Trump Republicans argue that the indictment was necessary to enforce subpoenas issued by the Jan. 6 committee to Trump associates who are resisting cooperation and to witnesses summoned by other congressional panels.
Many GOP leaders, however, are seizing on Bannon’s indictment to contend that Democrats are “weaponizing” the Justice Department, warning Democrats that they will go after Biden’s aides for unspecified reasons if they take back the House majority in next year’s midterm elections, as most political analysts expect.
“For years, Democrats baselessly accused President Trump of ‘weaponizing’ the DOJ. In reality, it is the Left that has been weaponizing the DOJ the ENTIRE TIME – from the false Russia Hoax to the Soviet-style prosecution of political opponents,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the third-ranking House Republican, tweeted Saturday.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, suggested that Republicans would seek payback if the GOP regained control of the House, signaling that in challenging the doctrine of executive privilege, Democrats were making it easier for Republicans to force Biden’s top advisers to testify before a future GOP Congress.
“Joe Biden has evicerated Executive Privilege,” Jordan wrote on Twitter. “There are a lot of Republicans eager to hear testimony from Ron Klain and Jake Sullivan when we take back the House.” Sullivan is Biden’s national security adviser, and Klain is the White House chief of staff.
The Jan. 6 committee may also refer former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution in coming days. Meadows, like Bannon, has also been subpoenaed by the committee, and he did not appear Friday for a scheduled deposition.
Democrats argue that the doctrine of executive privilege – intended to shield confidential communication between a president and his advisers – was never meant to apply to the kind of information the committee is now seeking. The panel is exploring conversations between Bannon and Trump that occurred when Bannon held no government position. And committee members say they are interested in interactions related to an insurrectionary attack on the U.S. Capitol, not in talks involving legitimate government business.
More broadly, they say that far from being political, the Jan. 6 committee is investigating an effort to overturn a legitimate election, including an attack on Congress that resulted in five deaths and injuries to some 140 law enforcement officers. Nine Republicans joined all House Democrats in voting to hold Bannon in contempt last month.
But many Republicans are dismissing such distinctions, and Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., issued an especially direct payback threat.
“Now that Democrats have started these politically-motivated indictments for Contempt of Congress, I look forward to seeing their reactions when we keep that same energy as we take back the House next year!” Boebert declared on Twitter Saturday.
Stefanik, to bolster the contention that Bannon’s indictment is politically motivated, pointed out that when congressional Republicans voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012 and former IRS official Lois Lerner in 2014 in contempt, the Justice Department under President Barack Obama did not pursue criminal charges against them.
Even as a handful of Republicans urge former Trump aides to cooperate with the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation, most high-profile GOP leaders have quickly turned Bannon’s indictment into the latest litmus test for loyalty to the former president.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., an unapologetic supporter of Trump and his base, simply tweeted the hashtag “#TeamBannon,” along with a photo of the two of them chatting near Air Force One.
The resistance has come from the top, and Trump has continued to maintain he will deploy executive privilege claims to defy the House select committee’s requests. An attorney for Trump also recently told former advisers not to comply with subpoenas from the committee, citing “executive and other privileges.”
On Saturday, Trump released a statement excoriating Republican members of Congress who had voted to either pass Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan or hold Bannon in contempt, or in some cases both, listing the lawmakers individually and promising to support anyone who runs primary campaigns against them.
“Saving America starts by saving the GOP from RINOs, sellouts, and known losers!” Trump, who is permanently suspended from Twitter after Jan. 6, said in a statement through his Save America PAC. RINO is a derisive acronym for “Republican in name only.”
The former president continued his drumbeat of support for Bannon throughout the weekend, saying Sunday, “This Country has perhaps never done to anyone what they have done to Steve Bannon and they are looking to do it to others, also.”
Bannon himself kept up his characteristically aggressive rhetoric in the hours before news of his indictment broke, declaring on the Friday episode of his podcast, “Bannon’s War Room,” that “thugs” run the New York Times and boasting that pro-Trump Republicans are “taking over all the elections.”
“We’re taking action, and that action is we’re taking over school boards, we’re taking over the Republican Party through the precinct committee strategy,” he said. “We’re taking over all the elections. Suck on this!”
Republicans who are challenging Bannon’s defiance of the Jan. 6 committee have become targets of attacks by Trump and his supporters. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who voted for both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the contempt motion against Bannon, has since received death threats, he said. On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Upton defended his decisions, saying Bannon did not cooperate with the committee in any way and that he would await the panel’s next steps.
“Former president Trump said early on he did everything totally appropriate. Those were his words. So we have to let the sun shine in, be fully transparent. And that means get to the truth, find out exactly what happened,” Upton said. “And if you stonewall Congress . . . if you refuse to participate in that, all of a sudden, you don’t really have an equal branch of government trying to get to the answers on this.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who has been an outspoken critic of Trump and has for months urged his party, in vain, to distance itself from the former president, over the weekend mocked Trump’s threats to primary Republicans who went against his wishes as the “latest dispatch from Worriedville.” Kinzinger is one of two Republicans on the Jan. 6 committee, along with Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
GOP strategist Doug Heye, a Trump critic, warned on “Fox News Sunday” that Republicans’ defense of Bannon could have implications for Congress’s oversight authority as an independent branch of government.
“Congress takes these things very seriously, and whether you’re talking about a Republican House or a Democratic House, the primacy of Congress and its oversight is paramount,” Heye said. “Republicans and Democrats should be able to unify on this. They obviously won’t. But if we have a Republican House in the future, they will have no hesitation in holding Democrats in contempt just as we’re seeing right now.”
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The Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.