On Wednesday, the U.S. Government rested its case against Stephen K. Bannon for criminal contempt of Congress for his failure to comply with a subpoena from the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capitol. With witness Stephen Hart, an FBI special agent on the stand, prosecutor Molly Gaston walked the jury through some gems from Bannon’s Gettr account, showing screenshots of posts linked to articles with headlines such as, “Steve Bannon tells the January 6 select committee that he will NOT comply with their subpoena.”
His reason for noncompliance, Bannon contends, is that his testimony was shielded by executive privilege because for less than a year, five years ago, he served as chief strategist in former President Donald J. Trump’s White House. It’s a position that seemingly only Bannon and his minions believe.
In this week’s posturing before the Washington, D.C., U.S. District Court by the legal team defending Bannon, one thing became clear. These guys are not in it to win it. At the very least, they’re in it for the appeal. And if, in the meantime, they craft a counternarrative that works for Bannon’s podcast audience, riling up the nativist right, introducing more general chaos into American political discourse, and somehow advancing Bannon’s cause of spreading worldwide fascism, well, so much the better.
Or, as right-wing provocateur Jack Posobiec said on Monday’s edition of Bannon’s very successful podcast, War Room Pandemic, “Now Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief strategist of the president of the United States, is on show trial for this, and … both sides know that the only reason he is there is because of the effectiveness of the War Room posse, the effectiveness of the national populist movement, and the fact that he was architect of so much of the MAGA movement 2016 (presidential election) victory, and they’re trying to take him off the playing field for 2024. This is the regime going after the opposition.”
With Judge Carl J. Nichols having narrowed admissible defense arguments to the question of whether Bannon willingly defied a subpoena with which he was legally obligated to comply, it’s widely expected that Bannon will be found guilty, and quickly. And, of course, he’s all but certain to appeal that verdict. (After all, there are no five-star accommodations in prison.) So it’s quite likely that some of the claims being put forward by Bannon and company right now, while the spotlight is on him, are meant to poison the well for his next foray into federal court. The game is to create as much doubt and confusion as possible for general consumption and a grand conspiracy theory for the rowdy residents of Bannon-stan.
As jury selection got underway on Monday, Posobiec—promulgator of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, who once infiltrated a 2016 anti-Trump protest carrying a “Rape Melania” sign, presumably to impugn the left or own the libs or something—filled in for the big guy on the podcast as the big guy sat in a courtroom, talking (you guessed it) executive privilege. Guest Mike Davis, introduced as founder and president of the Article III Project and self-described as a former staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, contended that Bannon had asserted a legitimate executive privilege claim. “If the January 6th kangaroo commission didn’t think that was a valid assertion of executive privilege, they could have litigated that in court,” Davis said. The judge, alas, did not agree.
By Tuesday, as both the government and the defense teams made their opening arguments, Posobiec’s topic of the day moved to select committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, who was curiously also the topic of the day for the defense team in the court—even if it had nothing to do with the question before the court. In the courtroom that day, David Schoen, a small, excitable man who is one of Bannon’s defense attorneys, made a fuss over a witness called by the government—Kristin Amerling, deputy staff director and chief counsel to the January 6th committee. Schoen described Amerling as “incompetent” to speak on the intent of Thompson when he issued the subpoena—which, again, is not a question that is before the court. The point to Schoen’s performative frustration seemed to be to imply that Thompson, not Amerling, belonged before the court as a witness to be grilled about his allegedly political motives in charging Bannon with contempt.
Indeed, about all the defense seemed to offer in its opening argument, presented by attorney Evan Corcoran, was the insinuation that Bannon’s legal woes—at least those before this particular court—were the result of a process tainted through and through by politics. Corcoran noted that in the House vote for Bannon’s contempt of Congress citation, 203 members voted against the measure, leaving unsaid the fact that nine Republicans voted with Democrats to charge Bannon with contempt. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Vaughn, the government’s lead on the case, leaped up more quickly than one would think her far-along pregnancy might allow to ask for a closed (“under seal”) discussion with the principals—a bizarre moment when all the attorneys and the judge pick up telephone handsets while the room is flooded with a torrent of white noise that Judge Nichols called a “husher.”
Nichols repeatedly said that he did not want the trial to become “a political circus.” But somehow, the more he said it, the more he merely drove home the fact of the circus’s inevitability. Wednesday’s attempts by the defense to villainize Thompson became ridiculous. With Amerling returning to the stand, Corcoran kept presenting her with letters to Bannon or his attorneys that were signed by Thompson, asking her if she could identify even one word penned by Thompson. Over and over, Amerling explained that the letters are drafted by staffers in a collaborative process and then given to the chair, who may make changes, for his signature. It was hard to know what point Corcoran was trying to make, other than perhaps the dog-whistle implication that Thompson, who is Black, is somehow ignorant. The jury, which appears to be about 50 percent Black, is unlikely to be moved by that notion, but it serves the denizens of Bannon-stan.
The circus started in the months before the trial commenced, when the Bannon team tried one stunt after the next to slow down the pace of the legal proceedings and the submission of documents. Stunts included submitting subpoenas for the testimony of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Bennie Thompson. (Members of Congress are shielded from testifying on the business before Congress; these subpoenas were dead on arrival.) Last week, Judge Nichols, a Trump appointee, threw out a rack of defense arguments the Bannon team had proposed, including Bannon’s assertion that he couldn’t testify before the committee or submit to its request for documents because former President Donald Trump had asserted executive privilege over that information. Or so Bannon claimed. But as Amerling said in her continuing testimony on Wednesday, Trump never made an executive privilege claim to the committee regarding any potential Bannon testimony.
At the end of each day in court, Bannon has appeared before the cameras of the media outlets he so denounces to deliver his personal indictment of Thompson, and to repeat the Big Lie. On Tuesday, he proclaimed that “what’s driving” the trial is “the total and complete illegitimacy of Joe Biden. Trump won; Joe Biden is illegitimate.” On Wednesday, he doubled down on his trashing of Thompson, suggesting that Thompson was faking his Covid diagnosis in order to avoid coming to court.
With a protester blowing a shrill whistle throughout Bannon’s brief statement at the media stakeout outside the courthouse entrance, and with Covid whipping around the nation’s capital, Bannon wailed: “What are the odds that a guy who’s boosted, double-boosted, following Dr. Fauci’s recommendations, what are the odds that the very day this trial starts … he comes up with Covid? … This is absurdity; it’s completely and totally absurd.… Where’s Bennie Thompson? Why is Bennie Thompson not here, defending his committee? It’s a show trial.”
None of this is likely to impress the judge or the jury. But this performance is for MAGA World, the source of Bannon’s bread and butter, and for the purpose of flooding the media with Bannon’s narrative in order to introduce doubt and chaos ahead of the appeals process. Team Bannon is aiming to lose this one, and lose it big and loud.