Steve Bannon’s Indictment Is the Fight Both Sides Want
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Steve Bannon’s indictment by the Justice Department on Friday afternoon answers a question that’s lingered since the former Trump White House strategist refused to testify in Congress’s investigation of the Jan. 6 riot: Would Attorney General Merrick Garland try to force him to? Or would his desire to depoliticize the department lead him to abstain from taking on such a charged topic?
Today’s actions make clear that President Joe Biden’s Justice Department is willing to pursue this fight and bolster the congressional investigation. Oddly enough, it’s a fight that Bannon wants, too.
The rationale for the Justice Department is easy enough to understand, even if some anxious Democrats worried that Biden and his attorney general would succumb to misty longing for a bygone age of partisan comity and decline to hold ex-Trump officials to account. Upon taking office, Garland said the department would recommit to the rule of law. The charges today “reflect the department’s steadfast commitment to these principles,” he said in a statement. Along with Biden’s decision to waive executive privilege over Trump White House documents for the Jan. 6 committee (temporarily on hold), it’s clear that the Biden administration is all in.
Bannon’s angle in the fight is a bit more oblique. Few people relish an indictment. But Bannon isn’t a normal ex-senior White House official. He has no fancy corporate job to worry about, no reputation to protect, and a singular goal that will almost certainly be advanced—not set back—when he marches past the TV cameras to get arraigned on Monday.
Speaking with Bannon and folks in his camp over the last year, his motivations are plain. Ever since he was cast out of the White House in 2017 and ex-communicated by an angry Trump (who famously dubbed him “Sloppy Steve”), Bannon has worked assiduously to worm himself back into Trump’s good graces, having recognized belatedly that power and influence in Republican circles depends entirely on Trump’s good favor. The very fact that Bannon was subpoenaed by congressional investigators is testimony to his success in these efforts: After the election he emerged as Trump’s loudest defender and a key hype man for the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that ended in bloodshed.
Trump has made clear that he doesn’t want his former staffers cooperating with the Jan. 6 investigation, claiming he can invoke executive privilege. Bannon’s spurning of his subpoena on these grounds, and his indictment, is an opportunity to make a very public display of loyalty and enhance his own personal brand in the eyes of the person whose opinion he cares about most: Trump. He’s casting himself as the anti-Mike Pence, showing he’ll go to any length to please Trump—something his former vice president famously wouldn’t do.
In truth, Bannon doesn’t think he’s taking much of a risk, according to people in his camp. He expects Republicans to win back the House of Representatives next November and swiftly shut down the Jan. 6 investigation.
In the meantime, as the result of today’s indictment, Trump’s claim of executive privilege now appears as if it will play out on two legal tracks, not one: Trump fighting the Biden administration’s releasing of his records, and Bannon fighting the Justice Department’s indictment.
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