Steve Bannon appeared in federal court Monday after surrendering to federal law enforcement earlier in the day. The former Trump strategist was indicted Friday for contempt of Congress after refusing to appear and share information about the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Bannon appeared before Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The courthouse is just a few hundred feet from the U.S. Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters waged a violent attempt earlier this year to overturn the 2020 election.
Federal prosecutors did not move to detain Bannon, who was released on his own recognizance. He will need to inform the court if he leaves the Washington, D.C., area and to ask for permission if he seeks to leave the U.S. He has surrendered his passport.
Bannon’s next court date is set for Thursday, with District Court Judge Carl Nichols, who was appointed to the bench in 2019 by Donald Trump.
Bannon was indicted by a federal grand jury last week, three weeks after the House of Representatives voted to refer him to the Justice Department for criminal enforcement of the subpoena issued to him by the select committee investigating Jan. 6.
He was charged with two criminal counts: one for refusing to appear for a deposition and the other for refusing to produce requested documents. Each carries a minimum potential sentence of 30 days and a maximum of one year in jail, as well as a fine of $100 to $100,000. Prosecutors clarified during the hearing that the fine could reach that higher figure after the judge said initially it could go up to only $1,000.
Bannon entered the courtroom in casual clothes after spending the morning being processed by law enforcement personnel. He was not in handcuffs, but was escorted by U.S. marshals. Meriweather read him his rights and asked him to stand and raise his right hand as he swore to tell the court the truth.
Later, he reclined in his chair and played with a pen during the roughly 30-minute hearing. He smiled while talking with his attorney, David Schoen, who had defended Trump during the former president’s second impeachment trial.
After the hearing, Schoen blasted the Justice Department for treating a misdemeanor “as if it were a capital case.” He said that until the courts resolve whether Trump can make claims of executive privilege over testimony and document production, Bannon has no choice but to refuse to cooperate.
Bannon, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy the attention from a horde of reporters outside the courthouse. “This is going to be the misdemeanor from hell,” he said, promising to “go on offense” against the Biden administration. He did not explain what that might mean.
The former White House adviser to Trump, who left government in August 2017, is the first person to face criminal charges for refusing to cooperate with the Jan. 6 committee. But he may not be the last.
Trump’s former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows did not appear for his own deposition on Friday, and the committee’s leaders said they may soon consider sending criminal referrals to the Justice Department for him.
“Mr. Meadows has failed to answer even the most basic questions, including whether he was using a private cellphone to communicate on Jan. 6, and where his text messages from that day are,” said Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chair, and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the vice chair.
But the Justice Department will face a new set of legal questions if it is asked to prosecute someone like Meadows. The reason it took the DOJ several weeks to charge Bannon is that the law and precedent around claims of executive privilege as it relates to former presidents are complicated. And if Bannon is found not guilty, it could signal to others who have been asked to share information with the Jan. 6 committee that there are only limited consequences for refusing to do so.
“If Bannon is criminally prosecuted, but it’s unsuccessful, that in some ways sends a stronger message because it shows that the Justice Department can’t bring these suits,” Jonathan David Shaub, a former Justice Department lawyer, told Yahoo News.
But the Jan. 6 committee chose to pursue Bannon first for a reason, believing that his case could be the easiest one for the government to prosecute. A big reason for this is that he was not in government service for the past few years. Meadows, however, was inside the Trump administration until the end of the former president’s term.
So to overcome issues of executive privilege that may apply to Meadows but not to Bannon, the Justice Department would have to decide it was confident it could make a strong case that Meadows is guilty of contempt of Congress, and that he had criminal intent.
Trump has sought to stonewall the investigation by claiming executive privilege over the information sought by the committee, such as witness testimony from former administration officials and outside aides, and a variety of documents including White House call logs, schedules and records of Trump’s meetings during his final days in office.
The Jan. 6 committee has subpoenaed 35 individuals so far, and has spoken to more than 150, a spokesman told Yahoo News.
A former editor of the right-wing news site Breitbart, Bannon seeks to create influence and exercise power through the use of alternative media, such as his podcast, “War Room.” He ignored mainstream media TV cameras on his way into the FBI field office Monday morning and spoke directly to a camera operated by "War Room," which was livestreaming his entrance into the building.
“Is this us?” Bannon asked as he turned to face his camera crew, which was surrounded by photographers and reporters. He stopped and addressed the lens, advertising his podcast and livestream, and ignoring the shouts of network TV reporters asking him to speak into their microphones. In short remarks, Bannon played the part of a martyr in the service of a political movement.
“I don't want anybody to take their eye off the ball on what we do every day. OK, we got the Hispanics coming to our side, African Americans coming to our side; we're taking down the Biden regime,” he said. “I want you guys to stay focused, stay on message.”
Bannon sought to reassure his supporters that his arrest was nothing to be worried about, calling it “noise.” He gave a salute and walked inside to surrender to law enforcement.
After Bannon walked into the FBI building, former Trump adviser Peter Navarro appeared on the "War Room" livestream and saluted back to “Brother Bannon.”
Navarro and others on the show misled their viewers, telling them a host of falsehoods. He claimed incorrectly that the 2020 election was stolen, that the media refused to cover evidence of cheating and that then-Vice President Mike Pence “betrayed” Trump when Pence followed the Constitution and certified the results of the election.
Amid a flurry of claims and accusations that often contradicted one another, Navarro also said Pence wanted Trump out of the way for the 2024 election.
But there was some evidence that the rapid advance of the Jan. 6 committee has rankled Bannon’s devotees. Navarro took a swing at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for pulling Republicans loyal to Trump off the Jan. 6 panel.
Last spring, McCarthy and other top Republicans objected to the creation of an independent commission to investigate the attacks. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi then moved forward with the creation of a select committee that includes two Republicans critical of Trump: Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
“Kevin McCarthy made arguably the dumbest checkers move in a chess game I’ve ever seen,” Navarro said. “He lost control.”