The contempt of Congress trial against former Trump strategy chief Steve Bannon kicked off Tuesday with opening statements from the prosecution and defense after the polarizing Trump ally’s last-ditch efforts to delay the trial were eviscerated by a string of judicial rulings.
Federal prosecutors unveiled their case to jurors, asserting that Bannon, who has repeatedly inveighed against the January 6 hearings, “decided he was above the law” when he refused to comply with a subpoena issued by the House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
The subpoena, which was issued last September, “wasn’t a request,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Vaughn told the federal court. “It wasn't a request. And it wasn't an invitation. It was mandatory."
Bannon “decided he was above the law, and he didn’t have to follow the government’s orders like his fellow citizens,” Vaugh added.
The federal prosecutor elucidated to the court that the select committee believed Bannon might have crucial information about the January 6 storming of Congress by a mob of Trump supporters to thwart the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential elections.
"This case is about the defendant thumbing his nose at the orderly process of our government. It is that simple," Vaughn told the jurors.
Bannon’s lawyers dismissed Vaughn’s argument, asserting that criminal contempt accusations were leveled against their client while he was negotiating with the select committee. “No one ignored the subpoena,” said Evan Corcoran, Bannon’s lawyer. “It’s called negotiation; it’s called accommodation.”
The attorney suggested that the dates of the subpoenas issued to Bannon by the select committee — one for documents and the other for testimony — were negotiable. He said that the select committee almost always negotiated with the legal team of its proposed witnesses and that witnesses “often appear” later than the date specified on the subpoena, per Reuters.
“The evidence will be crystal clear. No one expected that Steve Bannon would appear... There will be no evidence that anyone ordered Steve Bannon to do anything," Corcoran proclaimed.
However, Vaughn insisted that Bannon had deliberately flouted the subpoena out of contempt, putting himself above the U.S. government’s efforts to probe the Capitol attack.
"Congress was entitled [to the information it sought]," Vaughn said. "It was mandatory. ... He chose to show his contempt for Congress and its processes."
“He didn’t get stuck on a broken-down Metro car,” Vaughn told the court. “He just decided not to follow the rules.”
“So this whole case is about a guy who just refused to show up? Yes, it is that simple,” she added.
Corcoran argued that “politics” was the driver behind the select committee’s effort to seek testimony from Bannon. “Politics is the lifeblood of the U.S. House of Representatives," Corcoran said. "Politics invades every decision that they make. It’s the currency of Congress."
The prosecution’s first witness, Kristin Amerling, the chief counsel for the House Select Committee, corroborated the prosecutors’ arguments with a detailed explanation of the Bannon subpoena and why the select committee believed it had to compel the former White House adviser to testify.
Under questioning from Vaughn, Amerling told the court that Bannon’s statements before the riot “suggested he might have some advanced knowledge of the events of January 6,” according to the Washington Post.
The chief counsel also said that the select committee had obtained multiple indications that Bannon might have communicated with “individuals in the White House, including the president.”
Amerling, who confirmed to jurors that she was involved in counseling the select committee about Bannon’s subpoena, was asked if Bannon had complied with the deadlines for the select committee’s subpoena — October 7, 2021, to produce documents and October 14, 2021, to appear for deposition.
"He did not," Amerling replied.
Bannon unleashed a barrage of verbal attacks on the select committee and derided his trial as unfair — an eruption that could trigger a backlash from the judge overseeing the case.
“They’re charging me with a crime?” Bannon fumed. “It’s outrageous!” He proceeded to slam the select committee’s chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS). “Bennie Thompson is a total, absolute disgrace, and this show trial that they’re running is a disgrace,” Bannon hollered.
The trial, which will continue on Wednesday morning, is still on track to take just a few days, as only a handful of witnesses have been identified on both sides.