WASHINGTON (CN) — A day after Steve Bannon launched into a fiery tirade outside the courthouse to mark the start of witness testimony in his federal contempt trial, defense counsel worked on cross-examination Wednesday to make the prosecution of the famously disheveled conservative strategist look like a witch hunt.
The witness whom defense attorney Evan Corcoran tried to stain with bias accusations was Kristin Amerling, the chief counsel for the Jan. 6 committee.
Though Amerling is a veteran of Capitol Hill and testified that she has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, Corcoran brought up that Amerling has made campaign donations to Democrats and that she used to attend a book club with one of Bannon's prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Vaughn.
Amerling said she hasn’t been to a meeting in over a year and that her book club affiliations would have no bearing on her work in any case. Corcoran repeatedly asked Amerling questions related to which committee members drafted language within the letters sent to Bannon and who decided the deadlines for documents on the subpoena.
On the executive privilege claims, Corcoran asked Amerling if Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson had explored reaching out to Trump to try to reach an agreement on Bannon’s cooperation. Amerling testified that Thompson did not because Trump had not made any formal or informal attempts to claim executive privilege over Bannon’s testimony or documents.
The prosecution claims that executive privilege is not a defense for contempt. While Bannon intimated before the start of his trial that he is now willing to testify before the Jan. 6 committee, the government says such testimony would not override his prior failure to comply.
Prosecutors have sought documents and testimony from Bannon to establish whether there is any link between the Jan. 6 insurrection and Bannon's work with former President Donald Trump to claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
On direct examination by Vaughn, Amerling dove into the finer details of committee’s communications with Bannon’s attorney concerning his subpoena. Amerling said Robert Costello, who represented Bannon at the time, accepted the subpoena from the committee and did not ask for an extension or claim not to have the documents sought by the committee.
After the document deadline passed, Costello told the committee that Bannon was claiming his documents and testimony would be protected under executive privilege since he was an adviser for Trump. Amerling said the committee viewed Bannon as a private citizen.
The committee’s response, signed by Representative Thompson, asserted that case law did not support the executive privilege claim. Thompson then warned Bannon, Amerling testified, that if he failed to comply, the committee would view it as “willful noncompliance with the subpoena” and that noncompliance would force the committee to consider invoking contempt of Congress procedures, including a referral to the Department of Justice for criminal charges.
Bannon’s subpoena sought information on his communications with the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, extremist groups whose leaders are accused of planning the Jan. 6 attack. Amerling said the Jan. 6 Committee also wanted Bannon’s communications with Republican Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry and other members of Congress.
On Oct. 18, Bannon’s attorney asked the committee for a one-week adjournment request in light of Trump suing the committee to block its access of his White House records. Amerling said Bannon did not provide any additional reasons for noncompliance in the letter, and the committee understood that Bannon wanted to delay information related to his misconduct. The committee then decided to refer Bannon for criminal contempt.
In a letter to Bannon on Oct. 19, Thompson, on behalf of the committee, asserted that Bannon’s delay tactics were undermining the committee’s work. Amerling testified that Bannon’s communications were important to the committee because Bannon had been in contact with Trump, and because the former president had directed the crowd at his Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse to march toward the Capitol.
Bannon claims he engaged in good-faith negotiations with the committee but the charges against him are politically motivated.
Presiding over his trial is U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee. Having already nixed major elements of Bannon’s defense, Nichols allowed documents into the record with evidence that Trump told Bannon he would invoke executive privilege but allow him to testify.
Nichols said the jury is limited, however in how it can use these documents, and that Bannon’s belief that executive privilege exempted him from complying with the committee’s subpoena was not relevant to the case.
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