Thursday, May 30, 2024

Steve Bannon sentenced to 4 months in prison for defying Jan. 6 committee subpoena, but remains free, pending appeal

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Washington — Steve Bannon, former President Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist and campaign CEO, was sentenced to four months in prison on Friday after a jury convicted him on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He must also pay $6,500 in financial penalties. 

Bannon was found guilty in July, and his legal team has indicated that he intends to appeal his conviction. 

Prosecutors asked Judge Carl Nichols to send Bannon to prison for six months, at the higher end of the sentencing guidelines for this case, and impose a $200,000 fine for what they argued was “his sustained, bad-faith contempt of Congress.” Bannon’s team asked for a probationary sentence and a delay in any possible prison time pending his appeal. 

Nichols ruled that Bannon had been convicted of charges that require a mandatory minimum of one month in prison, explaining that the “law is clear” on the matter, and Bannon has showed no remorse for his actions. 

The judge agreed with Bannon’s legal team that Bannon should be released and his prison time be delayed until the appeal process is resolved. 

After the sentencing, Bannon told reporters, “We’ll have a very vigorous appeals process — I’ve got a great legal team. There’ll be multiple areas of appeal.”

Bannon, a private citizen at the time of the Jan. 6 committee’s creation last year, was charged after he rebuffed the panel’s demand that he sit for a deposition with investigators and hand over documents relevant to the congressional probe.

The committee originally sought information from Bannon in 17 key areas, ranging from his communications with Trump to his knowledge of coordination between right-wing extremist groups in carrying out the Capitol attack. 

Bannon pleaded not guilty, and what followed was a tumultuous legal battle between the defense and prosecutors over which evidence was admissible at trial, Bannon’s efforts to postpone the proceedings, and the televised hearings showcasing the House Jan. 6 select committee’s evidence, which referenced Bannon multiple times. 

During the July trial, prosecutors told the jury that Bannon thought he was “above the law” and “thumbed his nose” at congressional demands, while Bannon himself did not testify and his legal team called no witnesses. 

The Trump ally maintained at the time of his refusal that he could not testify because of executive privilege concerns raised by the former president, adding that his attorney, Robert Costello, had advised him not to comply with the subpoena because of those concerns. Nichols ruled that because of binding precedent from a higher court, Bannon’s legal team could not present a defense known as “advice of counsel” to the jury. That ruling is the subject of Bannon’s likely appeal.

In a surprising about-face days before the trial began, Bannon told the Jan. 6 committee that he would be willing to testify — publicly – after Costello said Trump had reversed course on those executive privilege claims. 

In their pre-sentencing memo, prosecutors alleged Bannon used that apparent change of heart in an attempt to pressure prosecutors to drop the case entirely on the eve of trial, accusing him of trying to get the congressional investigators who wanted his testimony to convince the Justice Department to dismiss the charges should he cooperate. 

“The Defendant attempted to leverage the information he had unlawfully withheld from the Committee to engineer dismissal of his criminal prosecution,” prosecutors wrote earlier this week. “The factual record in this case is replete with proof that with respect to the Committee’s subpoena, the Defendant consistently acted in bad faith and with the purpose of frustrating the Committee’s work.” 

In court Friday, the government said that Bannon “never lifted a finger to find a responsive document.”

“The defendant has tried to make it about nothing other than politics and retribution,” prosecutor J.P. Cooney said. “He’s acted as if he’s above the law.  He is not.”

But Bannon’s attorneys argued their client was convicted for following the advice of his attorney and had been politically targeted for his actions. 

“The facts of this case show that Mr. Bannon’s conduct was based on his good-faith reliance on his lawyer’s advice,” his legal team wrote earlier this week, “Based upon clear authority, Mr. Costello provided legal advice to Mr. Bannon. Mr. Costello provided legal justifications for Mr. Bannon’s position to the Select Committee and received responses back from Select Committee attorneys. Mr. Costello provided advice to Mr. Bannon, and Mr. Bannon acted on that advice.”

A term of imprisonment, they argued, was unconstitutional because Bannon thought he was acting lawfully.

“Any sentence of incarceration should be suspended,” attorney David Schoen argued on Friday in court, “and wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“It is especially inappropriate for this case to be brought as a criminal case,” Schoen contended, adding that “Mr. Bannon should make no apology.”

Bannon, Schoen argued, was acting “on principle” when he decided to ignore the subpoena, and he said the legal action against Bannon was political. 

Bannon, who sat mostly expressionless in the courtroom, opted not to speak on his behalf ahead of sentencing, telling Nichols his lawyers spoke on his behalf. 

In explaining his sentence, Nichols said the House Jan. 6 Committee, which Bannon defied, has “every reason” to investigate the events of that day and work to prevent similar instances in the future.

The judge said some of the information the committee sought from Bannon had “no conceivable claim of executive privilege,” but privilege over other topics was less clear. Nichols conceded that Bannon’s legal team did not completely ignore the committee and communicated with the staff about its privilege concerns. 

He also noted that the committee’s decision not to pursue a civil lawsuit to compel is testimony before holding him in contempt “cut” in Bannon’s favor.

Nichols ordered Bannon to surrender by Nov. 15, absent any appeal.  

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