The US House has voted to refer Steve Bannon, the onetime adviser to former President Donald Trump, to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, accusing him of contempt of Congress over his refusal to cooperate with the investigation into the January 6 Capitol riot.
The resolution was adopted in a largely party-line vote of 229-202, with only nine Republicans joining all Democrats in approving it, Xinhua news agency reported.
It came two days after the House special committee investigating the January 6 Capitol riot unanimously voted to hold Bannon, who defied the committee’s subpoena and refused to appear for a deposition, in contempt of Congress.
In the report released on Monday recommending that the House hold Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress, the special committee cited Bannon’s remarks made on his radio show on January 5 – when he said “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow” — as evidence that “he had some foreknowledge about extreme events that would occur the next day.”
House Republican leadership sent out a statement in the lead-up to Thursday’s vote rallying against the contempt resolution, saying Congress has no authority to conduct the January 6 investigation for a legislative purpose, nor does its oversight authority include law enforcement powers.
In her remarks during the floor debate over the resolution, Liz Cheney, vice chairwoman of the special committee, criticized her fellow Republican members who opposed the measure for seeming to “have forgotten the danger of the moment, the assault on the Constitution, the assault on our Congress.”
The House vote will set up a referral to the Justice Department, which will have to decide whether Bannon, one of the central figures targeted by the special committee in its probe, should be prosecuted.
With the passage of the recommendation, all eyes are now turning to Attorney General Merrick Garland, who testified Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department would review any referral, however, he refused to give any hint on the agency’s decision on prosecution.
“The Department of Justice will do what it always does in such circumstances, we’ll apply the facts and the law and make a decision, consistent with the principles of prosecution,” Garland said when asked by lawmakers about referrals related to the January 6 probe.
Bannon, the former chief strategist of Trump, has told the special committee through his attorney that he won’t cooperate with the investigators until the dispute is settled about Trump’s invocation of executive privilege to block certain documents sought by the committee.
The select committee has requested a trove of documents and communications within the White House concerning what happened on January 6, when a mob of Trump’s supporters raided the Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.
In defiance of the request, Trump claimed that some of the documents are covered by “presidential communications and deliberative process privileges.” He sued the special committee and the National Archives, which is the custodian of those records, after President Biden decided not to grant him the executive privilege in such context.
In a letter to the special committee cited by CNN, Bannon’s lawyer said “the executive privileges belong to President Trump” and “we must accept his direction and honor his invocation of executive privilege.”
The letter suggested that the courts may ultimately decide whether Bannon should be forced to cooperate with the House investigators.
Cheney said Tuesday night when the special committee was voting on the recommendation that Bannon and Trump’s privilege arguments “do appear to reveal one thing.”
“They suggest that President Trump was personally involved in the planning and execution of Jan. 6,” said Cheney, a Republican who was stripped of her leadership role in the party over her public feud with Trump. “And we will get to the bottom of that.”
Contempt of Congress is a crime that can result in the person convicted being fined and sentenced to between one and 12 months in jail, but precedents of such litigations are very rare and proven notoriously difficult to succeed.
Historically, contempt of Congress prosecutions oftentimes ended up being appealed or concluded with the defendant being acquitted. The last time such a case took place was in 1983 against an official in the Ronald Reagan administration.