After just three hours of deliberating behind closed doors on Friday, a jury in the nation's capital found Steve Bannon guilty of contempt of Congress.
Bannon, who was on trial this week for contempt of Congress over his decision to ignore subpoenas related to the Jan. 6 Committee, had promised a fiery trial that would embarrass the government. In the end, he and his legal team didn't put a single witness on the stand-not even Bannon.
The prosecution was able to present the case as an open-and-shut affair, asking jurors to consider the facts: Did Bannon show up for depositions? Did he comply with subpoenas?
The answer to those questions were emphatically no, and jurors seemed to agree that the case wasn't much more complex than that.
Bannon, a one-time Goldman Sachs investment banker, ventured into producing Hollywood films in the 1990s and eventually turned himself into a rightwing media personality on a relentless mission to dismantle the state. After helping to found the rightwing website Breitbart News, he led Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and transitioned to his chief strategist at the White House.
But it was his role in remaining a close Trump ally that made him a target of the Jan. 6 Committee, particularly because he allegedly helped craft the "Green Bay Sweep" plan alongside since-indicted former White House adviser Peter Navarro. That plan involved pressuring Republican lawmakers to slow down the certification of the electoral college vote in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
The Jan. 6 Committee's historic, televised hearings in recent weeks have revealed just why they wanted evidence from Bannon so badly. White House phone records obtained by congressional investigators showed how, on the day before the insurrection, Trump twice called his former adviser-now a podcaster who trafficks in rightwing conspiracy theories. Minutes after the phone chat, Bannon took to his War Room: Pandemic podcast and announced, "All hell is going to break loose tomorrow. It's all converging, and we're on the point of attack."
Yet, even today, the committee has not received a single document from Bannon about his communications with the former president and his interactions with fascist militias and street gangs now facing seditious conspiracy charges for attacking the Capitol building.
From the very moment Bannon was indicted in November, the Justice Department presented this as a simple matter that could be resolved with a one-day trial-while the defense toyed with a dozen different strategies to delay the case, taint the prosecution, and present novel legal theories about complex constitutional issues.
The trial was no different.
Amanda Vaughn, a prosecutor with the District of Columbia's U.S. Attorney's Office, remained laser-focused on a single issue: Bannon refused to show up or turn over documents when he was supposed to do so. Her conversation remained cut-and-dry as she questioned the government's first witness, attorney Kristin Amerling, the committee's chief counsel and deputy staff director.
"Did the defendant show up for his deposition?" Vaughn asked on Wednesday.
"He did not," Amerling responded.
By contrast, Bannon's defense lawyers tried to cast doubt on typically unremarkable details in the case, such as who exactly set the subpoena deadlines Bannon ignored. They also questioned whether Jan. 6 Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) actually wrote every word of the letters to Bannon that he'd signed. During closing arguments, Evan Corcoran, one of Bannon's two defense lawyers, surprised everyone in the courtroom when he went as far as doubting whether Thompson even signed the subpoena by pointing to the congressman's slightly different signature on that document-prompting the judge to halt him immediately and make him drop the issue.
When Corcoran examined the subpoena deadlines, he pointed out how the Jan. 6 Committee, in the past year, has routinely pushed back scheduled depositions and accommodated witnesses who were willing to eventually come in. But Amerling told him Bannon was different, because he wasn't playing by the rules.
"It's not uncommon, is it, for a person... to appear for a deposition many weeks after the date of a subpoena?" Corcoran suggested.
"There is often a dialogue. It's unusual for a witness to just outright say they will not come in," Amerling responded.
Bannon's team repeatedly fell back on the idea that the podcaster never had to show up to testify, because the one-time White House employee was somehow protected by the former president's "executive privilege," rules which are meant to limit the ability of Congress and the courts from probing into the inner workings of the White House.
The jury in this case never got to hear about the way a federal judge, an appellate panel, and even Trump's own Supreme Court justices sided against any notion that a former president some some kind of executive privilege long after leaving office-with one of them noting that "Presidents are not kings."
This District of Columbia jury did, however, hear that there were serious doubts as to whether Trump even granted Bannon that kind of protection in the first place. While Bannon tried to cloak himself with the claim that his hands were tied as a former White House employee-who wasn't even there when the insurrection occurred-letters showed that Trump had not explicitly ordered Bannon to stay quiet. And Bannon never turned over any documents the Jan. 6 Committee sought that had nothing to do with the White House, such as his communications with coup plotters and members of Congress who tried to overturn the 2020 election.
"Did Chairman Thompson explore the option of trying to reach an agreement with President Trump over the claim of executive privilege?" Corcoran asked Amerling at one point.
"No, because you are assuming that there was an issue on the table to resolve. There hadn't been an assertion-formal or informal-of executive privilege," she responded after several tries.
After that, Bannon's defense seemed to spiral. Corcoran asked the committee staff lawyer about her political leanings, questioned her ability to remain fair because of her history working as a lawyer on several Democrat-led congressional committees, and at one point drew courtroom laughs when he interrogated Amerling about the fact that she joined the same book club as a Molly Gaston, the other prosecutor lawyer on the DOJ team.
That issue came up again at the end of trial when Vaughn, the lead prosecutor, told jurors, "I don't know what courtroom Mr. Corcoran was in, but all I learned was that Ms. Amerling and Ms. Gaston are book club dropouts."
Corcoran, the more mild-mannered of Bannon's lawyers, remained at the helm throughout most of the trial. But the other attorney on his defense team, David Schoen, who represented Trump at his second congressional impeachment trial, took it upon himself to deliver a speech in court while the jury was away that read like an attempt to cast doubt over the entire trial. He lamented U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols' decision before trial to knock down many of Bannon's initial defenses-like saying that he was merely following his attorney's advice to not show up. Schoen also used it as an opportunity to explain why putting Bannon on the witness stand would have been a useless gesture.
"He has wanted to testify publicly in this case under oath... exactly what the true facts of the case are. However, on the advice of counsel, he has decided not to testify because he understands he would be barred in telling the true facts... and what he did not do in relation to the subpoena," Schoen said. "At all times, he believed what the law was requiring him to do."
Notwithstanding his shyness in the courtroom, Bannon delivered political speeches after every court appearance in his case, with topics ranging from his hate of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), his disdain for Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), and his insistence that the Jan. 6 congressional panel is a "sham committee." Those speeches initially caused a hiccup in the trial, as the Department of Justice warned that it seemed Bannon was trying to poison his own trial.
"One last thing. I stand with Trump and the Constitution," he said on Thursday just feet from the courthouse's revolving glass doors.
While prosecutors didn't bring up the antics at trial, they captured the iconoclastic character that drives every one of Bannon's decisions.
"This is like a child arguing with their parent when they're grounded. That kid knows they're grounded. They can argue all they want. The decision has been made," Vaughn told jurors in her closing argument on Friday morning.
The subpoena deadlines formed the fundamental facts of the case: Bannon never turned over documents by Oct. 7, 2021 and didn't testify on Oct. 14, 2021. But it was Bannon's own posts on the pro-Trump social media platform Gettr-from his verified account, no less-that showed his glee at dodging the Jan. 6 Committee subpoena. On the witness stand, FBI Special Agent Stephen Hart reviewed both posts, in which Bannon seemed to copy-and-paste headlines about his resistance and linked to news stories. Gaston told jurors the posts were "the defendant celebrating his defiance."
Ultimately, jurors seemed to agree. Bannon will now await a mandatory minimum sentence in prison of anywhere between one month and a year in prison, as well as a fine. His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2022, and the judge asked Bannon on Friday to stop by the office of his probation officer later in the afternoon.
Following the conviction, Bannon groaned that his ploy to drag committee members into court didn't work.
"The gutless members of that show trial committee, the J6 committee, didn't have the guts to come down here and testify," he said.
Schoen promised to soon appeal the case and explained his decision to present no defense, calling Bannon's conviction "a foregone conclusion" given how the judge barred them from arguing that Bannon merely did what his Long Island attorney, Bob Costello, advised him to do.
"He listened to his lawyer," Schoen told reporters. "His lawyer directed him, 'You may not comply.'"
Although the underlying criminal charge is merely a misdemeanor, the threat of prison time with Bannon's conviction is a clear warning sign to other Trump associates who refused to testify before the Jan. 6 Committee, like "Green Bay Sweep" co-planner Navarro and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows.
This D.C. jury's ability to quickly come to a conclusion-and avoid divisive politics amongst its members-stands apart from an episode last month in New York City involving yet another criminal case with a Bannon connection. There, a lone MAGA devotee seething about "liberals" and a "government witch hunt" refused to deliberate at all with fellow jurors, causing a mistrial in a case that charged Bannon business associate Timothy Shea with ripping off people who donated to a $25 million campaign to privately build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
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