Court Battles

Bannon attorney asks jurors to consider if contempt case ‘affected by politics’

An attorney representing Stephen Bannon, the former Trump adviser charged with unlawfully defying a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, suggested to a jury on Tuesday that political motivations are driving the case against his client.

During his opening statement on the first day of trial, defense attorney Evan Corcoran asked jurors to keep the political considerations surrounding the case in mind as evidence is presented to them.

Corcoran said that when jurors hear witness testimony or see an exhibit during the trial, they should ask, “Is this piece of evidence affected by politics?”

Bannon is charged with two counts of contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee last year for documents and testimony.

The trial began this week amid a series of select committee hearings that have painted former President Trump and his allies as the orchestrators of various schemes to undermine the 2020 election who stoked fury among supporters with baseless claims of election fraud.

One of the hearings last week raised questions about who Bannon had been in contact with and what he knew ahead of the Jan. 6 attack. 

Amanda Vaughn, an assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case against Bannon, said in her opening statement Tuesday that the select committee had reason to believe he “may have been involved with or had conversations with” people involved in the attack or the events leading up to it.

Vaughn said the question before the jury was simple: Did Bannon willfully defy a lawful subpoena ordering him to provide information to congressional investigators?

“You will see here … that the defendant’s failure to comply was deliberate,” Vaughn said. 

“This case is about the defendant thumbing his nose at the orderly processes of our government,” she added.

In his opening statement, Corcoran tried to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, saying the deadline for complying with the September 2021 subpoena was in flux and that another of Bannon’s attorneys was in negotiations with committee staff about the demand.

“No one ignored the subpoena,” Corcoran said, promising to show evidence of “direct engagement” between Bannon’s attorney and the select committee.

Prosecutors have said they need just one day to make their case against Bannon and that they likely will call just two witnesses.

But contentious proceedings on Tuesday appeared to throw cold water on the idea that the misdemeanor case against Bannon would proceed smoothly.

U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols denied a last-ditch request from Bannon’s defense team for a one-month delay in the trial as the proceedings became bogged down Tuesday morning in a pretrial dispute over whether certain evidence could be brought before the jury.

The dispute hindered the court from empaneling 12 jurors and two alternates Tuesday morning as planned.

During arguments right before the judge was prepared to seat a jury, the two sides clashed in a dispute over whether the jury will be able to see letters Bannon exchanged with the select committee in the weeks after he received the subpoena.

Bannon’s defense attorney David Schoen argued against the letters being admitted during trial, calling them hearsay and saying they would raise issues implicating defense arguments that the judge had already prohibited.

Schoen and Corcoran said the dispute caused confusion over what the defense would be able to present to the jury and asked that the trial be delayed by as much as a month.

While Nichols quickly rejected the possibility of pushing back the trial for a month, it seemed at times Tuesday morning that what was supposed to be a straightforward prosecution for failing to comply with a subpoena could be complicated with drawn-out evidence disputes that are unusual for a misdemeanor case.

Nichols agreed to admit the letters into evidence after a two-hour recess, appearing to end the impasse but doing little to dampen the disputes between the parties that have slowed the proceedings.

Vaughn appeared to object during Corcoran’s opening statement when the defense attorney raised the issue of politics, leading the judge to conference with the attorneys in a discussion that was shielded from jurors and observers in the courthouse.

The hearing is expected to last a week.

The prosecution’s first witness, Kristin Amerling, the select committee’s chief counsel, began testifying Tuesday afternoon and is expected to continue when the court reconvenes Wednesday morning.

Amerling said when the panel issued its subpoena, it had information that Bannon had held conversations ahead of the Jan. 6 attack with people in the White House and figures who may have been involved in organizing pro-Trump events that day.

The defense team has reserved the possibility of calling Bannon to the stand but has not indicated a final decision on whether he’ll testify.

Updated at 5:02 p.m.

Tags Donald Trump Stephen Bannon Steve Bannon

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