Federal Judge Smacks Down Steve Bannon Nonsense During Court Hearing

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Federal Judge Carl Nichols issued a limit on Wednesday on questions that could be asked of witnesses in Steve Bannon’s criminal trial amid a dispute about apparent attempts by Bannon’s defense to characterize actions targeting Bannon as based in politics.

Bannon is on trial for contempt of Congress after initially refusing to cooperate with the House committee investigating the Capitol riot, which subpoenaed him. Even after saying he’d testify, he’s yet to comply with the panel’s demands for documents. His lawyer Evan Corcoran argued that he could ask Kristin Amerling, a staff member for the riot investigation panel who was brought in as a witness, questions getting at potential bias of anyone on or presumably serving as a staff member at the committee, but Nichols shut down that possibility. Nichols indicated Bannon’s defense could question witnesses getting at potential personal bias on the individual witness’s part, but he forbade questions aimed at potential bias on the part of someone else in connection to actions taken outside the trial.

Not every question about an individual witness’s potential personal bias would be permitted, the judge indicated. “I do not intend this to become a political case, a political circus, a forum for partisan politics,” Nichols remarked amid broader discussions. Bannon would no doubt have other ideas. “They can’t use these principles of cross examination to cover their effort to inject politics and suggest that this is politically motivated,” prosecutor Amanda Vaughn stated, in apparent reference to questions both possible and already asked by Bannon’s defense. During questioning of Amerling at a different point on Wednesday by prosecutors, CNN notes the government — through Vaughn — undercut the potential notion Bannon misunderstood the deadline for compliance with the committee’s original demands. That argument was, at least initially, one of the only potential lines of defense available to Bannon after Nichols ruled against, among other possible arguments for Bannon, using executive privilege claims.

Days before the deadline for Bannon’s testimony, committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) sent his attorney a letter outlining the possibility of Bannon facing contempt proceedings — and reiterating the specific point by which the panel was demanding Bannon testify. That letter was covered in Amerling’s testimony. Uncertainty about the deadline doesn’t appear to be a realistic argument.

Based on previously available info, one factor at trial will be proving — or disproving — that Bannon willfully refused to cooperate with the subpoena demands from the committee. Nichols previously ruled against using executive privilege arguments on the basis of their irrelevance to dealing with the underlying point of Bannon willfully — or inadvertently — failing to meet the committee’s demands. If he did so intentionally, it would seem as though that would be proof for the prosecutors’ case and a defense rooted in executive privilege concerns, which carries an assumption of intentional action on Bannon’s part, wouldn’t work.

Corcoran eventually used the opportunity provided him by Nichols to ask questions about potential bias on individual witnesses’ parts. He questioned Amerling about the political affiliations of officials for whom she’d worked during her D.C. career and political donations she’d made. He also asked about her time in the same book club with one of the prosecutors working on the case against Bannon — who could face jail-time if found guilty.