A coalition of news organizations, including The Washington Post, has sided with former Trump White House adviser Stephen Bannon in asking a federal court to release documents that are part of Bannon’s prosecution for refusing to testify before the Jan. 6 congressional committee.
Bannon is fighting a proposal by prosecutors to keep the documents under wraps — including more than 1,000 pages of witness testimony, grand-jury proceedings and other information generated as part of the discovery process in the prosecution of Bannon alleging contempt of Congress. Journalists would be unable to see the documents if the Justice Department prevails in persuading a judge to impose a protective order.
The legal brief by the media coalition — which includes The Post, The New York Times, CNN, NBC News and others — creates some strange bedfellows. It aligns some of the biggest news organizations with one of their harshest critics.
Bannon, who was chief executive of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and briefly Trump’s chief White House strategist, often amplified Trump’s criticism and contempt of the news media. At one point during his brief tenure at the White House, he called the media “the opposition party” and said it “should keep its mouth shut.”
He pleaded not guilty last month to two counts of contempt of Congress, stemming from his refusal to testify and to turn over material subpoenaed by the Democratic-led House committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol building.
The government contends that public access to the documents would result in publicity that could taint the jury selection process and intimidate witnesses before the trial begins. Prosecutors have argued in a brief that Bannon’s public statements “make clear that defense’s real purpose [is] to abuse criminal discovery to try this case in the media rather than in court.”
It cited Bannon’s comments to reporters after he made his initial court appearance last month: “I’m telling you right now, this is going to be the misdemeanor from hell, for [Attorney General] Merrick Garland, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden,” he said at the time. “We’re tired of playing defense, we’re going to go on the offense on this.”
Lawyers for the media companies said a protective order on all discovery material was “overbroad” and would limit what the public could learn about the government’s case.
According to the coalition’s brief, a blanket protective order would prohibit Bannon and his attorney from communicating with the news media about their case, a violation of the First Amendment.
The coalition’s brief was first reported by the Daily Mail.
It’s not clear whether the judge in the case, Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee, will order a hearing on the matter or when he will issue a ruling.
The coalition, whose membership is informal, periodically files briefs on behalf of news organizations that are seeking access to government records, or against restraints on newsgathering. Most recently, it filed on behalf of The New York Times, which was fighting a trial court’s temporary restraint on publishing news about the activist group Project Veritas. The court kept its order in place.
The coalition’s members on the Bannon case also include ABC News, BuzzFeed News, CBS News, Dow Jones & Co. (publisher of the Wall Street Journal), Gannett, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, ProPublica, E.W. Scripps, Gray Media Group and Tegna. The latter three are among the largest owners of TV stations in the United States.