Former adviser Steve Bannon answered questions about Russian election interference before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday — but only ones “scripted” for him in advance by White House officials, according to committee members.
The ousted former political strategist to President Donald Trump appeared on Capitol Hill after multiple interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller in recent days, according to a source close to Bannon who confirmed an NBC News report. Both Mueller and the House Intelligence Committee are investigating whether the Kremlin might have influenced or colluded with Trump’s campaign.
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During a closed-door meeting with the House Intelligence Committee that lasted nearly four hours, Bannon refused to answer any questions beyond 25 that had been pre-screened by the White House, senior Republican and Democratic committee members said. Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, suggested those questions were so narrowly drawn that they appeared intended to mislead lawmakers.
“There were questions along the lines of ‘did you ever meet with X?’ And because the question had been written by the White House the answer was invariably ‘No,'” Schiff said. “When we asked the question, ‘Did you talk with ‘X?,’ the answer was yes.”
But when committee members asked for details, Bannon said the White House instructed him to invoke executive privilege on Trump’s behalf. Executive privilege is a legal claim the president can use to protect conversations from scrutiny by other branches of government.
That left even senior committee Republicans unhappy. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas.), the Republican who leads the panel’s Russia investigation, said he would discuss with House Speaker Paul Ryan whether to seek contempt charges against Bannon, who was Trump’s chief strategist until he departed the White House last August.
In a visit to the House panel last month, Bannon made clear he would not discuss his time on the post-election transition team — which investigators are probing for potential contacts between Trump allies and Russian government officials — nor his tenure in the White House, during which Trump took actions that many Democrats believe may constitute obstruction of justice.
Conaway described “a little frustration” among committee members and said he intends to review the mechanics of a contempt citation, including whether it will require the committee to vote or can simply be raised on the House floor.
“Contempt is a big deal and I don’t have unilateral control over that conversation,” he said.
Ryan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Schiff raised what he described as another potential conflict: Bannon’s attorney William Burck also represents White House counsel Don McGahn, whose office advised the House on what questions Bannon would be able to answer. He said he has question about “counsel advising one witness based on instructions from another client.”
Burck downplayed any concern about conflicts in an interview with POLITICO last month.
“I can only speculate because the attorney who represents Steve Bannon also represents White House Counsel that this is being done in concert as part of a coordinated strategy to stonewall this committee,” schiff said, calling the White House’s claims of privilege as “breathtaking” and at times “laughable.”
“I can only gather from that that their goal is to draw this out as long as possible,” he said.
NBC reported that Bannon spoke to Mueller’s team for some 20 hours over multiple days. Bannon was not previously expected to declare any subjects off-limits before the special counsel.
Bannon participated in White House debates about Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, an act Bannon has called among the greatest mistakes in “modern political history.”
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