More details about Steve Bannon’s marathon 10-hour appearance before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday are beginning to come to light.
According to an CNBC report, Bannon agreed to testify before the committee because the White House believed it had an agreement in place to limit questions only to events during the presidential campaign while avoiding questions about Bannon’s six-month stint in the West Wing, one Trump administration official said.
This explains yesterday’s report that Bannon had invoked executive privilege during his meeting to avoid sharing details about his time in the Trump administration, where he served as chief strategist.
Bannon reportedly stopped answering questions once his lawyers had alerted the White House that the scope of the House panel’s questions would be expanded to include his time in the White House.
According to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, staffers for the committee and the White House on Friday discussed the parameters of Bannon’s testimony.
The White House emerged from that conversation believing it had an agreement to limit the questioning of Bannon just to events during the campaign, and not during the transition period or his time in the White House.
Then, hours into Bannon’s closed door testimony, his lawyers informed the White House from Capitol Hill that the questions would extend beyond the scope of what the White House understood the agreement to be. At that point, the White House told Bannon not to answer any further.
“We said ‘Hey, hey, pump the brakes,'” the official said. “We said to Bannon, ‘Don’t answer those questions because we haven’t agreed to that scope under the process.'”
The official declined to say who initiated the mid-testimony phone call or who took part on behalf of the White House.
Following Bannon’s refusal, Republicans and Democrats joined forces to issue Bannon a subpoena on the spot to compel his testimony. It is not clear what, if any, questions Bannon answered after that. A Reuters report said the former top Trump aide refused to comply with the subpoena. Committee member Trey Gowdy was frustrated by Bannon’s refusal and his decision to invoke executive privilege.
Gowdy, one of the Republicans leading the committee’s investigation, told Fox News Bannon’s excuse was “…the most tortured analysis of executive privilege I have ever heard of,” Gowdy 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.”
Democrats were also frustrated by Bannon’s refusal, with Adam Schiff saying it was tantamount to a gag order.
“This was effectively a gag order by the White House preventing this witness from answering almost any question concerning his time in the transition or the administration and many questions even after he left the administration,” Schiff said.
The committee had previously turned down a White House offer on Friday to have an administration attorney sit in on the Bannon session to referee the questions surrounding scope of the interview. “The committee’s belief was it was not necessary,” the official said.
Members of the committee say they still want to hear more from Bannon, and have raised the possibility of him returning on Thursday, though right now, things are unclear.
“We have additional questions,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “The subpoena remains in effect. And we have additional questions we don’t have the answers to yet. We’re going to work to get those answers.”
Bannon, who lost most of his political support in the conservative community following his falling-out with President Trump earlier this month, has also struck an agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to avoid – or at least put off – testifying before a grand jury. He instead will meet privately with Mueller and his team.