This week, during the initial four-hour detention of a Long Island, N.Y., businessman and New York State Republican Party chairman, there was an oddly familiar character at the detention center: none other than Steve Bannon.
In Bannon’s case, there is one exception: the probe of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is not mentioned in the federal criminal indictment unsealed on Friday afternoon — as the role of Bannon and of President Donald Trump’s presidency is not mentioned in the criminal indictment related to his former political adviser Roger Stone.
The expected occurrence of Bannon’s presence was also explained by a briefing by prosecutors this week: To answer three charges of criminal contempt for lying to Congress about his actions during the 2016 campaign and transition, as well as communications with journalists about the investigations into Russian election interference. Bannon was then kept in custody at the federal detention center in Brooklyn, N.Y., for five hours on Wednesday before being released on his own recognizance. He was also given a scheduled hearing in court on Friday.
A grand jury returned the indictment on Thursday. “The [verdict] is historic,” the Department of Justice’s Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said at a press conference Friday.
The charge was, for Bannon, a bid by Mueller’s prosecution team to somehow prove that his behavior had to do with the Russian investigation: “The purpose of these charges is to show that lies told to Congress to obstruct the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller cannot be used to deflect criminal liability from more serious conduct that is the heart of this indictment,” Kim said. “A defendant’s failure to cooperate with Congressional investigations is not enough. The defendant must directly help Special Counsel Mueller.”
So what came after the “alleged lies” to Congress? What Mueller’s team is now claiming can be proved would constitute “directly helping Special Counsel Mueller” is that Bannon will instruct all associates, like Stone and his business partner, Rick Gates, and other key associates, to also lie to Congress in the future.
“If Defendant seeks to aid a future defendant in committing false statements to Congress,” Kim said at Friday’s press conference, the new charges could be “substantial.”
Mueller’s prosecutors are yet to argue about whether Bannon, who was in Trump’s orbit for nearly four years and helped shepherd Trump’s short-lived campaign to the White House, would “possibly seek to aid” Stone in doing so. And even if the new charges in the indictment are proven to be true, whether that poses a threat to the Trump presidency or not, Bannon’s behavior before now and after the indictment could well drag him further into Mueller’s investigation.
Bannon’s wife, Elizabeth, issued a statement saying that she advised her husband not to talk to reporters. She said he told her about the Trump Tower meeting, for example, when she confronted him about it.
“That story’s nonsense,” Bannon’s spokesman Stephen Miller told The New York Times, explaining his denial of a meeting taking place. “It’s an absurd conspiracy theory.”
But in a memo released last month by Mueller’s office to explain how it has charged eight people and entities with crimes related to Russia, the special counsel’s team argues that these investigations are “critical to the legitimacy of our democratic process.” They add that “Failure to cooperate may make it more difficult for investigators to obtain relevant information from other witnesses or other entities. It can also make it more difficult for the Court to determine whether additional witnesses have relevant information.”
Back in 2016, back in March 2016, when Bannon was brought into the Trump campaign, he quickly became an important player. He has written several books about President Trump since, and has been a public fighter for the president.
In his statement, Elizabeth Bannon did not describe her husband’s alleged lies to Congress: “As a matter of longstanding, long-standing privacy, it is our policy not to comment on private conversations or interactions with one another,” she said.