White House Senior Advisor Steve Bannon. Picture: REUTERS
White House Senior Advisor Steve Bannon. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been subpoenaed to meet with special counsel Robert Mueller or appear before a grand jury hearing evidence in the Russia investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Bannon plans to sit down with Mueller later this month, though a date has not yet been set, according to the person, who discussed the situation on condition of anonymity. The former top adviser to US President Donald Trump doesn’t plan to invoke executive privilege when he meets with Mueller, the person added.

The battle over the reach and limits of executive privilege erupted on Tuesday as Bannon met behind closed doors with members of the House intelligence committee, which issued its own subpoena for his testimony. Lawmakers on the committee said the White House had asserted that Bannon was barred from answering many questions regarding their Russia inquiry.

Intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes confirmed to reporters that he authorised the congressional subpoena, and other lawmakers 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 committee for questioning. After the session began, the New York Times reported that he’d been subpoenaed by Mueller, who’s leading the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, 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. "The scope of this assertion of privilege — if that’s what it is — is breathtaking," Schiff said. "It goes well beyond anything we have seen in this investigation."

"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."

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 CEO — which is just mind-numbing and there is no legal support for it."

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’

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 hasn’t done so.

"As with all congressional inquiries touching on the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Tuesday. "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 to ensure Congress obtains information necessary to its legitimate interests."

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 didn’t 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.


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