Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon speaking at CPAC. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Steve Bannon gets held in contempt.

We're back in action, and we're covering the Steve Bannon contempt vote, a reader question about Democrats' strategy, and a story about universal basic income.
Isaac Saul Oct 26, 2021

Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're back in action, and we're covering the Steve Bannon contempt vote, a reader question about Democrats' strategy, and a story about universal basic income.

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon speaking at CPAC. Photo: Gage Skidmore
Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon speaking at CPAC. Photo: Gage Skidmore

We're back.

Thank you everyone for the well-wishes while Tangle took a few days off so I could compete in the U.S. National Championships of ultimate Frisbee. My team lost by one point in the championship game, a game so well played by both teams I'm sure it will go down as one of the sport's classics. Our opponent happened to be captained by my older brother Noah, creating a proud family memory to see us both in the championship game, and a crushing loss to a worthy opponent. I'm hoping by Thanksgiving I'll be a little happy for him. I very much appreciate all the good luck wishes and support!


While we were gone...

Fortunately, we didn’t miss a blockbuster weekend, but there were a few highlights to catch up on: The Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments over Texas's new abortion law, adding to what was already going to be a historic term. U.S. border patrol reported 1.7 million arrests on the southern border this fiscal year, the highest total in recorded history. The CDC endorsed booster shots of the Moderna and J&J vaccines, as well as mixing and matching of both initial vaccines and booster shots. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump is launching a new social media network called TRUTH Social, the Virginia governor’s race is a dead heat, and Democrats are still haggling over how to pass their infrastructure and reconciliation bills.

CNN screenshot of where Democrats are on their negotiations over Biden's two bills.
CNN screenshot of where Democrats are on their negotiations over Biden's two bills.

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. officials say they believe Iran was behind a drone strike on an American base in Syria. (The claim)
  2. The Biden administration has announced a new program that will allow private citizens to help sponsor refugees from Afghanistan. (The program)
  3. Experts advising the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are meeting to consider endorsing Pfizer's vaccine for young children. (The discussion)
  4. President Biden is planning to campaign with Democrat Terry McAuliffe ahead of Virginia's gubernatorial election. (The stumping)
  5. Executives from YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat are being questioned by the Senate today about how their companies work to protect children online. (The testimony)

Today's topic.

Steve Bannon. On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor, in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena. Bannon was one of four former Trump officials subpoenaed by the January 6 committee in Congress investigating the riots at the Capitol. Members of the committee believe Bannon has crucial information about plans to obstruct the electoral college ratification of the vote on the same day a Trump rally in Washington D.C. ended with hundreds of rioters storming the Capitol building.

Earlier this month, Bannon's lawyer Robert J. Costello informed the House committee that Bannon would not comply with the subpoena, pointing to Trump's call for former aides and advisers to cite executive privilege and proclaim immunity from the investigation. But given that Bannon was fired by Trump in 2017, legal scholars doubt his conversations would fall under executive privilege, a right of privacy typically reserved for official duties of the standing president under special circumstances.

After Bannon refused to comply with the subpoena, which included documents and testimony, the House voted 229 to 202 to find him in contempt. Nine Republicans crossed party lines on the vote: Representatives Liz Cheney (WY), Adam Kinzinger (IL), Anthony Gonzalez (OH), John Katko (NY), Nancy Mace (SC), Jaime Herrera Beutler (WA), Brian Fitzpatrick (PA), Fred Upton (MI) and Peter Meijer (MI). Each of those nine Republicans, besides Reps. Meijer and Mace, voted to impeach Trump in January.

Bannon has not worked directly for Trump since 2017, but has remained influential in the pro-Trump movement. On January 5, he assured listeners of his radio show that "all hell is going to break loose tomorrow," a prediction Democrats have cited as evidence Bannon had foreknowledge about plans to storm the Capitol building. The committee has said it is interested in following up on other media reports that Bannon encouraged Trump and Republicans to block certification of the election in conversations with the president on December 30 and January 5, during meetings at the White House.

With the vote, Bannon has been referred to Attorney General Merrick Garland, who can decide whether or not to prosecute the case. Under federal law, Bannon can face a misdemeanor charge that carries fines of $100 to $100,000 and a jail sentence of one month to one year.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right to the vote, then my take.


What the left is saying.

The left says Bannon needs to be held accountable, and either be compelled to testify or charged by Garland.

In The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus called Bannon's contempt of Congress "lawless and ludicrous."

"Pursuing criminal contempt charges against Stephen K. Bannon is a terrible way for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection to obtain the Trump aide’s testimony. It is also pretty much the only available option — and one that Attorney General Merrick Garland should quickly pursue," Marcus wrote. "It’s predictable because, well, Bannon. He is a professional provocateur. Were it not for Donald Trump’s 11th-hour pardon, he would be facing criminal trial for allegedly defrauding credulous donors who believed they were helping build a border wall instead of lining Bannon’s pockets.

“It’s infuriating because Bannon clearly has evidence relevant to the committee’s investigation; because his claim that he somehow isn’t obliged even to show up in response to a subpoena is so lawless; and because his assertion that his testimony is absolutely protected by executive privilege so ludicrous," she said. "Most of all, it’s dangerous, because if this intransigence is allowed to stand, it will signal the end of effective congressional oversight — if we’re not there already."

In Bloomberg, Jonathan Bernstein said it was "an easy call" to prosecute Bannon.

"Whatever one thinks about the rest of the Jan. 6 investigation, this is an incredibly easy question — and it’s essential to Congress and the presidency that the Justice Department and the courts get this right," Bernstein said. "Unlike previous such disputes, in which there were serious competing claims, this one is straightforward. Presidents, for example, have claimed that they’re entitled to protect conversations with their top advisers from congressional prying. But here, we’re not only talking about a former president, we’re talking about someone who was a private citizen at the time. And the evidence that Congress is seeking has nothing to do with advising the president about public policy; it’s about organizing a political rally at best, and an attempted overthrow of the government at worst. The nation will survive just fine if private citizens discussing such things with presidents are aware that they could be hauled before Congress and asked about them.

"Nor is there any question that this is a legitimate topic for congressional investigation," he added. "There’s a doctrine that Congress must have some legislative purpose for its investigations. Whether that’s a proper interpretation of Congress’s role or not, this again is an easy call. Of course Congress can write election law, including about the Electoral College. Of course Congress can write laws concerning its own safety. If Bannon’s assertion is allowed to stand, it’s hard to imagine any legitimate congressional investigation of any president. Congress would be permanently weaker; presidents would be closer than ever to being above the law."

But in The Los Angeles Times, Harry Litman called for caution, saying Garland's decision is more complicated than it seems.

"Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland has a far more complicated decision coming his way than people realize," Litman said. "The righteousness of the referral is not in doubt. There is every reason to think Bannon has important first-hand information about the planning of the Capitol attack. After all, he crowed the night before on his podcast: 'All hell is going to break loose tomorrow…. Strap in.'

But, Litman said, it turns out "the Department of Justice has emphatically pushed back against contempt referrals related to the executive branch... One of the pertinent legal counsel memos holds that, notwithstanding the mandatory language of the statute, the Justice Department retains its traditional prosecutorial discretion over contempt referrals. In other words, there is no more 'duty' to go to a grand jury than in any other case. Two more memos, from 1980 and 2008, are yet more significant and on point. They hold that the DOJ 'may not' prosecute criminal contempt charges against a current or former White House official who ignores a congressional subpoena based on an assertion of executive privilege. 'As a matter of statutory interpretation and the constitutional separation of powers,' the reasoning goes, the statute was not intended to, and could not lawfully, apply to such contempt claims."


What the right is saying.

The right is mixed on the issue, with some agreeing Bannon must be held in contempt and others arguing that the Democrats are conducting a partisan investigation.

In Hot Air, the conservative blogger Allahpundit expressed surprise that more than three Republicans voted in favor of holding Bannon in contempt.

"It’s risky but logical for pro-impeachment Republicans to support a subpoena aimed at investigating the run-up to January 6," he wrote. "Maybe Beutler et al. have convinced themselves that they can get away with this vote without angering Trumpists since (a) Bannon was the target, not Trump, and (b) all of them except Cheney and Kinzinger voted against creating the January 6 committee. I think that’s a miscalculation, though. MAGA loves a litmus test and this obviously qualifies because the subpoena is aimed at uncovering what Trump knew in advance about the riot, which is why McCarthy and Steve Scalise urged a no vote. Anything that might expose the Great Man to legal or political jeopardy must be fought by Republicans and the nine who voted yes today didn’t 'fight.'

"The two big surprises among the yes votes were Nancy Mace of South Carolina and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania," Allahpundit said. "Fitzpatrick is a former FBI agent and has always been… lukewarm about Trump, let’s say. He opposed impeachment twice but offered a censure resolution condemning Trump after January 6.... His Pennsylvania district is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters so he’s been trying to walk a line between not antagonizing either party too much. Today’s vote was a bone he threw to his Democratic constituents after throwing one to Republicans by voting against the formation of the committee awhile back. Mace is a huge surprise, though. Her district is R+7 and she’s facing at least one MAGA primary challenger."

In The Post and Courier, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) explained her vote.

"The House’s special committee to investigate Benghazi was created in the exact same manner as the Jan. 6 committee, and the Benghazi committee subpoenaed civilians and members of the Obama administration. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up to testify," Mace wrote. "I’m not comparing the merits of those two committees. In fact, I didn’t think there was much merit to the Jan. 6 committee, which is why I voted against creating it. Four federal agencies and 10 congressional committees were already investigating the events of Jan. 6; we didn’t need more."

Instead, Mace said, she voted to protect Congressional authority. "Congress has powers, and they are an important check on the other branches of government," Mace wrote. "Congress must have the ability to provide broad oversight, conduct investigations and make use of its subpoena power, which it used throughout our nation’s history, from investigating the Titanic’s sinking to exposing organized crime. When Republicans were in control, we used this power to investigate Benghazi, the Whitewater land scandal, Vince Foster’s death, Major League Baseball, Eric Holder and Lois Lerner, to name a few... next Congress, if Republicans are in the majority, we will want and need the same tools to investigate the many crises being overlooked by the current administration."

In PJ Media, Matt Margolis called out the Democrats’ "contemptible flip-flop on contempt," citing the 2012 Fast and Furious scandal, when Attorney General Eric Holder asserted executive privilege to refuse to testify.

"Seeing as Eric Holder was Obama’s 'wingman,' who protected him from various investigations, Obama returned the favor by protecting Holder (who falsely claimed to have no knowledge of the operation) by asserting executive privilege over thousands of documents requested by the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee," Margolis said. "This resulted in Congress’s historic (and bipartisan) vote to hold the attorney general in contempt. At least 80 Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, staged a walkout over the contempt vote, calling it a 'misuse of power' and chanting 'shame on you' at Republicans, whom they naturally accused of racism for daring to hold Holder accountable for his obstruction.

"But now that former Trump advisor Steve Bannon is refusing to comply with a subpoena for their partisan investigation of the January 6 Capital riot, Democrats no longer believe holding someone in contempt of Congress is an abuse of power or a distraction from more important priorities," Margolis said. "Bannon’s refusal to participate in a partisan investigation is undeniably more justified than Eric Holder’s obstruction of an investigation. Holder tried to cover up that he was aware of the program that resulted in Terry’s death, but documents ultimately proved he’d long been briefed about Fast & Furious."


My take.

I honestly think I could concede everything above, from both sides, and still come to the same conclusion: Bannon should testify or be held in contempt.

Even if you take the right's talking points at face value — that the January 6 commission is a partisan charade, that Obama officials stonewalled Congress in the past, that Bannon may have some semblance of protection because of executive privilege, he should still have to testify or face charges. The most obvious reason for this is that former President Trump, who may not even be able to assert executive privilege here (it's rather untested for ex-presidents), hasn't even formally asserted it yet in this case. He (or his lawyers) need to come before the committee and do that to even throw Bannon a lifeline. But if the defense actually amounts to “Democrats were upset when Republicans held Eric Holder in contempt,” that doesn’t seem like a great reason not to hold Bannon accountable, too.

Still, the idea that Bannon would be protected by executive privilege is a very tough sell at face value. The January 6 riots happened well after Bannon was a private citizen, as did his meetings with Trump that may have helped egg those riots on. Even if we were to pretend that Bannon was an official government employee at that time, though, executive privilege would only protect his discussions with the president related to crafting policies, making decisions or performing responsibilities of his office. It's designed to protect advisers from having to reveal information that could damage governmental functions. What info, exactly, could Bannon and Trump reasonably claim was policy-oriented or needs to be protected now in regards to January 6?

I wrote in the aftermath of that day that the events would forever be a part of Trump's legacy. I never bought into the "coup attempt" narratives and honestly found them a bit offensive while actual coups with dead citizens and millions protesting in the streets are happening across the globe right now. I even find the word "insurrection" a bit over the top, as it seems to carry the connotation of a well-thought out, pre-planned attempt at overthrowing our government. January 6 struck me much more as the logical conclusion of endless, meritless conspiracies meeting a mad political rally.

But the truth is we still don't really know everything, which is the point of all these investigations. The John Eastman memo that laid out a detailed and ill-fated plan for Trump to literally overthrow the election got a fraction of the attention it should have. Even questions from pro-Trump Republicans, like the FBI's role in monitoring or egging on the events of January 6, should actually be probed. In short: There are serious questions to be asked. And Bannon is one of the people that has answers.

That doesn't mean holding him in contempt will help, necessarily. The ideal process would be to take Bannon to court and enforce the subpoena, not just punish him for refusing to testify. But Congress knows Bannon, like testimony-dodgers before him, could delay enforcement through the midterms when Republicans are likely to retake the House and the investigation will be kaput. What other choice is there, though? As Mace argued, even in a world where Bannon is innocent and the investigation is partisan hackery, Congress must retain some power or there's no point or legitimacy in them investigating anything at all.


How much did it cost the last time you bought a beer? My guess is it was at least $4.75, the average cost of a beer in the U.S. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less (if you're in New York City, it was probably a lot more).

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Should the Democrats manage to pass it, how secure are the "Build Back Better" programs? Could Republicans start canceling parts of it with reconciliation should they gain control of the House, Senate and executive branch in '24? It seems like it would be easier to dismantle than the ACA since a lot of it would still be getting built up by then.

— Bill, Wayne, New Jersey

Tangle: Not very secure! One of the big ideological debates among Democrats right now is whether to do a few things very well and permanently or do everything they want in a more piecemeal fashion that leaves it up to whoever controls Congress and the White House next as to how to deal with it. So far, it seems as if they’re going with the latter.

Catherine Rampell actually just wrote about this in The Washington Post, in an op-ed that may be included in an upcoming Tangle edition. She essentially argued that Democrats didn't learn their lesson from Obamacare, a popular and more entrenched policy that Republicans were still just one vote away from overturning. I think she makes a strong case that if you want Democratic policies to last and flourish, the strategy of funding a few programs for many years and doing everything you can to make them permanent would be more effective than doing many things for shorter periods of time and leaving programs vulnerable.

More importantly, as Rampell writes, Obamacare was a law that required a vote to be ended. "The programs Democrats are considering now would expire on their own. It’s much easier for Congress to kill a program through inaction than action."

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The Chicago City Council is planning to vote this week on what would be one of the nation's largest universal basic income (UBI) programs ever instituted. More than 5,000 low-income households would receive $500 per month using leftover federal funding from the pandemic stimulus package that was enacted this year. The $31 million program is being proposed as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's 2022 budget, and could amount to the most high-profile UBI experiment in American history. While the plan is supported by most of the city's 50 aldermen, it has received pushback from the 20-member Black Caucus, which has urged Lightfoot to use the money for violence prevention programs, according to The Washington Post.


Numbers.

  • 44%. The percentage of Americans who say they feel very or somewhat confident in the Biden administration’s ability to ensure a post-pandemic economic recovery.
  • 52%. The percentage of Americans who said they felt very or somewhat confident in the Biden administration’s ability to ensure a post-pandemic economic recovery in January of 2021.
  • One. The number of times the party holding the White House has won the Virginia governor’s race since 1977, when McAuliffe (D) did it in 2013.
  • 23.5%. The percentage drop in traffic on Washingtonpost.com over the last year.
  • 21.7%. The percentage drop in traffic on FoxNews.com over the last year.
  • 257%. The percentage growth in Tangle's mailing list over the last year.

Have a nice day.

File this one under "all-time rescue stories." Two men in British Columbia were saved by a group of quick-thinking Sikh men who unraveled their turbans, tied them together into a makeshift rope and pulled the men to safety. The two men had gotten stuck on a steep rock in British Columbia's Golden Ears park with raging waters and a cliff beneath them when the five men hiking in the park noticed the men on the rock, and immediately went looking for help. But with no cell service and after 10 minutes of searching for someone to assist them, they decided to tie their jackets and turbans together, creating a 33-foot-long life line they used to get the men to safety. NPR has the story.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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