Steve Bannon was sentenced to four months behind bars and a $6,500 fine on Friday for his contempt of Congress conviction. But the judge has allowed Bannon time to appeal before serving his sentence.
While it isn’t exactly the six months in prison and $200,000 fine that the Justice Department was seeking, the fact that Bannon is being punished is itself important to future investigations and for our democracy.
Bannon is the only adviser to former President Donald Trump who has been held criminally accountable for his blatant undermining of congressional authority to investigate the unprecedented attack on our nation’s Capital on Jan. 6, 2021.
He received subpoenas, flatly refused to turn over documents or appear for his interview, all based on a laughable claim of executive privilege — a privilege that applies only to government employees. Bannon left the Trump administration in 2017. His role since his exit has been simply that of a Trump loyalist, which, it must be said, is not a government title, despite Trump’s attempts to treat it as one.
When the Justice Department filed its sentencing recommendation, it hammered home this point by reminding the court that Bannon was subpoenaed for information unrelated to his time as an official member of the Trump administration. This includes what was happening on Jan. 5, 2021, in a “war room” at Washington’s Willard Hotel, where a group of Trump allies — including Bannon — allegedly gathered to plan how to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results, according to the Jan. 6 committee.
More significant than a personal blow to Bannon, the legal action taken against him after he defied Congress serves as a reminder of the power of an independent judicial system.
Following Bannon’s indictment last fall, other Trump allies appeared to take the consequences of blowing off the Jan. 6 committee more seriously. Former chief of staff Mark Meadows began to cooperate to some degree with the committee shortly after that. Trump’s other advisers began to show up for interviews. Although several refused to answer questions, asserting their Fifth Amendment right to stay silent, independent prosecution and judicial rulings made it clear it was in their best interest to show up.
From the start of the House select committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6 attack, Trump and many of his supporters have tried to discredit it, calling it a “sham” and a “partisan witch hunt.” Bannon’s conviction proved that it was anything but. Consider that the judge who oversaw the case was a Trump appointee who had repeatedly declined Bannon’s attempts to delay the trial over the summer, and then a jury rendered its verdict on the law and evidence.
It goes without saying that Bannon is a pugilist who revels in that role. Defying a congressional subpoena was not the public’s first view of this. In 2020, when he was charged with fraud by federal prosecutors in an alleged scheme to defraud donors giving millions to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, he claimed that the legal action taken against him was a “fiasco” to “stop people who want to build the wall.” He’s denied any wrongdoing. Trump pardoned him before a trial during the 11th hour of his presidency, a move that seemed calculated to reward, or silence, the loyal. It was yet another astounding act from a president unbridled by any sense of the responsibility the office carries.
Perhaps between being pardoned and the overwhelming weight Trump still carries within the Republican Party, Bannon, like Icarus, thought himself able to fly up to the sun with wax wings.
It would be one way to explain Bannon and his defense team’s strategy. During the contempt trial, his lawyer told jurors that they should think about whether the evidence being presented against Bannon was “affected by politics.” When you’ve gotten used to feeling like rules don’t apply to you, I guess the possibility of being punished feels like “politics.”
Luckily, a jury of Bannon’s peers didn’t buy it, and now he’s facing prison time.
For those who don’t think that Bannon’s sentence for the crime of contempt is enough, perhaps there is some solace in knowing that he could still be charged with other crimes that the Justice Department deems worthy of prosecution if it finds sufficient evidence to do so.
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After all, the committee already shared evidence that when Bannon told his podcast audience on Jan. 5, 2021, that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” to “strap in” and referred to a “point of attack,” it was after two calls with Trump that same day. While these statements do not prove his guilt, they certainly place him in a circle of possible co-conspirators.
In the meantime, after Trump’s presidency took a sledgehammer to many presidential norms, Bannon’s contempt of Congress sentencing helps restore some of the boundaries of our constitutional order, including some deference to and respect for the investigatory role of Congress that could curb a president’s abuse of power.