It was a recurring theme of Donald Trump’s presidency: Congressional Democrats would launch a legitimate investigation into some clear malfeasance, the former president and his allies would refuse to cooperate, and the probe would prove toothless, unable to provide the accountability it was designed to bring about. Now, as Trumpworld stonewalling plays out again, congressional investigators are seeking to ensure their January 6 inquiry doesn’t meet a similar fate. The select committee probing the Capitol Hill insurrection on Thursday announced it was referring Steve Bannon, Trump's former strategist, for criminal contempt after he refused to comply with its subpoenas, blasting him for “hiding behind insufficient, blanket, and vague statements regarding privileges he has purported to invoke.”
“The Select Committee will not tolerate defiance of our subpoenas, so we must move forward with proceedings to refer Mr. Bannon for criminal contempt,” Bennie Thompson, the committee's chair, said in a statement Thursday. “The Select Committee will use every tool at its disposal to get the information it seeks, and witnesses who try to stonewall the Select Committee will not succeed.”
The announcement by the select committee makes good on threats its members have been making for days amid a game of chicken with Trumpworld. “We intend to enforce our subpoenas,” Democratic Representative Stephanie Murphy, a member of the select committee probing the pro-Trump riot, said on MSBNC Thursday.
It is crucial for the committee to assert its authority, considering it was already at a disadvantage before it began its work: Mitch McConnell and his Senate Republicans this spring filibustered the 9/11-style commission that Democrats and some in the GOP had hoped to establish, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy politicized the select committee that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created instead. With just two Republicans on the panel — Adam Kinzinger and vice chair Liz Cheney, both of whom have been exiled from the GOP for their votes in favor of impeachment — whatever it uncovers is sure to be refracted through the hyper-partisan lens of Trump era politics. It’s hard to hold insurrectionists accountable when half of Washington and a good chunk of the electorate actively supports said insurrection.
But it’s not an all or nothing proposition. The probe may not end with Trump and his collaborators forever banished from public life, as should probably be the case in a just and healthy political system, but there is still a great deal that investigators can accomplish to protect against such attacks in the future and safeguard the democratic process. Already, they’ve turned up additional details about the events the nation witnessed playing out on live television that day. Surely, they’ll learn even more by bringing key players in Trumpworld forward to testify. But to provide any measure of accountability, they first needed to win their standoff against Trump, who had predictably ordered his lackeys not to cooperate.
In directing his allies to stonewall the committee, Trump has trotted out one of his favorite excuses: executive privilege. It’s a dubious claim, but one that characters like Bannon, who was due for deposition Thursday, have been willing to invoke to avoid appearing before investigators.
That set up a staredown with the committee, which promised to force compliance with its subpoenas — even if it meant moving to hold Bannon, Dan Scavino, and others in criminal contempt. “We are deadly serious about getting to the bottom of everything that happened up to January 6 and thereafter,” Representative Adam Schiff told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday. “And if witnesses don’t appear when they’re supposed to or don’t produce the documents, we intend to move very quickly to have a vote in the House to hold them in criminal contempt and refer to the Justice Department for prosecution.”
The question, once the referral is made official on Tuesday, will be whether the Justice Department agrees to prosecute. As Politico noted Thursday, that's not necessarily a given. But, with a Democrat in the White House and an attorney general in Merrick Garland who, despite a mixed record on holding the previous administration accountable, has shown a willingness to help investigators when it comes to attempts to overturn the 2020 election, the committee has more tools to enforce its subpoena power than Democrats did when Trump was president. “I fully expect this DOJ to uphold and enforce that subpoena,” Murphy told MSNBC. Garland’s DOJ has allowed the committee to “interview top ranking and justice officials, to obtain documents from the archives,” Schiff added to the Washington Post. “I think that’s a very positive sign.”
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