Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon arrives for an interview with the House intelligence committee investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 16 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon arrives for an interview with the House intelligence committee investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 16 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Washington/New York — Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist for President Donald Trump, was asked formally by a White House lawyer to cite executive privilege in declining to discuss conversations with key administration officials, triggering a battle with House investigators that is stretching into its second day.

Separately, Bannon agreed to meet with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team later in January for an interview after receiving a grand jury subpoena, according to a person familiar with the matter, who said Bannon did not plan to assert executive privilege in that meeting.

An interview with prosecutors would allow Bannon to have an attorney present during his appearance, whereas lawyers are not permitted in grand jury rooms.

Uttam Dhillon, the White House lawyer responsible for responding to congressional investigators in the Russia probe, made the executive privilege request to Bannon’s lawyer, William Burck, prior to Bannon’s appearance Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee, said the person, who discussed the situation on condition of anonymity.

Burck passed specific questions to the White House during the House panel interview, and was given instructions on when to respond and when not to, the person said.

Privilege’s reach

The White House requests, which Bannon chose to honour, sparked a battle over the reach and limits of executive privilege on Tuesday as Bannon met behind closed doors with the intelligence panel’s Russia probe.

The committee quickly issued its own subpoena for his testimony and Bannon was been invited to return to the committee as early as Thursday to answer questions about events that took place during the transition, his time at the White House, and more recently.

Another person, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, said, however, that Bannon would not return on Thursday.

Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said he still expected Bannon to return.

"I can only say that the Congress of the US, let alone our committee, cannot allow a precedent where the White House can simply say with no indication of privilege that in a lawful investigation by Congress we’re simply going to deny Congress information," Schiff said.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked about the White House’s involvement in Bannon’s testimony on Tuesday, said the administration was co-operating with the investigation.

"As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material," Sanders said.

"This is part of a judicially recognised process that goes back decades. We have been fully co-operative with these ongoing investigations, and encourage the committees to work with us to find an appropriate accommodation in order to ensure Congress obtains information necessary to its legitimate interests."

House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes confirmed to reporters on Tuesday that he had authorised the congressional subpoena, and other legislators said he did so as Bannon declined to answer questions in nine hours of closed-door interviews on Tuesday.

Bannon had agreed to appear voluntarily before the intelligence panel for questioning on Tuesday.

Schiff said the White House had instructed Bannon to not answer many questions on the grounds that it wanted him to preserve the president’s option to assert executive privilege later on.

‘Gag order’

"This was effectively a gag order by the White House preventing this witness from answering almost any question concerning his time in transition, in the administration, and many questions even after he left the administration," Schiff said.

"This obviously can’t stand. We expect to have Mr Bannon back in, we hope very soon, with a different position by the White House."

The person familiar with the matter said that the committee had asked Bannon to return on Thursday, but that he had not yet agreed to that date. White House lawyers are unlikely to change their minds about instructing Bannon not to answer the committee’s questions about his time working on the presidential transition team or in the White House, the person said.

Objections to the sweeping pre-emptive claim of potential executive privilege were echoed by Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a Republican who has generally supported the president.

The subpoena was issued "because it is the most tortured analysis of executive privilege I have ever heard of", Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, said on Fox News. "Executive privilege now covers things before you become the chief executive — which is just mind-numbing and there is no legal support for it."

Schiff said Bannon’s lawyer informed the committee at the beginning of his interview on Tuesday that since Bannon was attending on a voluntary basis, "he was going to decline any questions concerning any discussions, meetings, conversations that took place either during the transition or during his time in the administration".

When Bannon refused to answer questions, Schiff said, the committee decided on a bipartisan basis to issue the subpoena to make his attendance at the hearing "compulsory", and Bannon was served.

Bannon’s lawyer conferred again with the White House and "was instructed by the White House to refuse again to answer any questions even though he was under a compulsory process concerning the period of time during the transition and administration", Schiff said.

Attorney-general Jeff Sessions also has invoked a right for the president to claim executive privilege later in refusing to answer questions from congressional committees about some of his conversations with Trump.

Democrats have countered that only the president can assert executive privilege, and Trump has not done so.

Democrats on the house intelligence panel are concerned that other witnesses appearing this week will also claim executive privilege and decline to speak about the transition or their time in the White House.

Outgoing deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn is to meet with the committee on Wednesday, according to CNN. Communications director Hope Hicks and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski are expected to testify this week as well, the network said.

"This is going to slow the process," Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat who is on the committee, told CNN. "This is a White House that has said there’s absolutely nothing there. That this is all a big hoax. That there was no collusion. And yet, when they send Steve Bannon in front of the committee, they say you can’t talk about anything related to your time at the White House or the transition.

"That’s got us scratching our heads," Himes said.

Bannon’s jabs

The combative Bannon is quoted in the new book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff as calling Donald Trump Jr’s 2016 meeting with Russian nationals "treasonous" and "unpatriotic". The younger Trump and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were among participants in the meeting, at which they expected to get damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Bannon also was quoted as predicting that the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia would "crack" the younger Trump "like an egg on national TV".

In a statement issued in Bannon’s name he did not deny the comments, saying only that he blamed Paul Manafort, who was then Trump’s campaign chairman, for allowing the meeting to take place.

Bannon was an integral part of the Trump campaign during the general election and went on to be a key figure in the White House until he was fired in August. After Bannon’s comments in the book were disclosed, Trump began calling him "Sloppy Steve" and issued a statement saying he’d "lost his mind" after being forced out of the White House.

Bloomberg with Reuters

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