I have been critical of the House Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, particularly for their claims of highly sensitive material in the Nunes memo (which turned out to be facially devoid of such material). However, I believe that the Democrats (and some Republicans) are on solid ground in considering a contempt sanction against former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon has refused to answer questions on the grounds of executive privilege but the White House has not asserted executive privilege in prior hearings as far as we can tell. He simply says that he was told not to answer questions. After failing to appear before the Committee or to answer questions previously, Bannon was already looking at a serious possibility of contempt. He then showed up yesterday with a list of 25 questions that he was prepared to answer “yes” or “no.” Bannon spent 20 hours with the Special Counsel’s investigators but gave monosyllabic responses to a congressional oversight committee and then refused to answer material questions. That sounds a lot like contempt to me.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that Bannon was instructed to invoke executive privilege in refusing to answer questions. In a court challenge on such a sweeping claim, the White House would likely lose on many of these material inquiries. Republicans also appear to have lost patience. I have previously testified in Congress (here and here) and written about the need for congressional committees to more vigorously enforce their contempt authority (here and here and here and here).
Rep. Trey Gowdy previously stated that he would not accept “yes or no” answers from Bannon. Bannon not only reportedly gave such answers but refused to even give those answers to a host of different questions.
The cavalier attitude of public officials appearing before Congress (not only during this but also prior Administrations) must stop. Oversight committee are being treated with open contempt. The only question is when they will recognize that treatment as contempt — plain and simple.