Explainer-What's at stake for Trump allies facing 'contempt of
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[October 15, 2021]
By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional
committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol is
pursuing contempt of Congress charges against Steve Bannon, a longtime
adviser to former President Donald Trump who is defying demands for
Trump claims the documents and testimony the committee is seeking is
protected by executive privilege and must be kept confidential, and
Bannon is rebuffing investigators until they reach a deal with Trump or
a court weighs in.
Three former Trump administration officials — Mark Meadows, Dan Scavino
and Kash Patel — have received similar subpoenas, but the extent of
their cooperation was unclear. The House of Representatives Select
Committee said last week it was "engaging" with Meadows and Patel.
Here's an explanation of how congressional investigators could pressure
the Trump allies to comply:
IS IT A CRIME TO DEFY A CONGRESSIONAL SUBPOENA?
Yes, an 1857 law says failure to comply with a congressional subpoena
for testimony or documents is a misdemeanor, punishable by one to 12
This law, known as the "contempt of Congress" statute, outlines a
process for the House or Senate to refer a non-compliant witness for
criminal prosecution. Ultimately, the U.S. Justice Department decides
whether to bring criminal charges.
Under this process, the Select Committee must report on its efforts to
force compliance by Bannon. Once the Select Committee adopts a contempt
report, the question of whether to make a referral is put to the House
for a vote.
A big question in Washington is how President Joe Biden's Justice
Department would respond to a contempt referral from the Democrats in
the House. The Justice agency declined to prosecute an Internal Revenue
Service official in 2014 under Democratic former President Barack Obama
and maintained that stance under Trump.
DOES CONGRESS HAVE OTHER OPTIONS FOR ENFORCING SUBPOENAS?
The Supreme Court said in 1821 that Congress has "inherent authority" to
arrest and detain recalcitrant witnesses on its own, without the Justice
[to top of second column]
President Donald Trump talks to chief strategist Steve Bannon
during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White House in
Washington, U.S. January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/FILE PHOTO
But it has been almost a century since Congress
exercised this arrest-and-detain authority, and the practice is
unlikely to make a comeback, legal experts said.
During Trump's impeachment trials, senior Democratic lawmakers
including Representative Adam Schiff discussed reviving this power,
known as inherent contempt.
Instead of jailing recalcitrant witnesses, the House could issue
daily fines, Schiff said in 2019. Democrats never followed through
on that proposal.
WHAT ABOUT CIVIL LITIGATION?
The Select Committee could sue Bannon or other witnesses who refuse
to comply with subpoenas, seeking a court order that they are
legally obligated to hand over information.
The House tried this approach during Trump's presidency, but the
court cases unfolded slowly. A lawsuit over whether the IRS must
hand over Trump's tax returns to a House committee has still not
produced a single ruling on the merits.
Trump, in recent public statements, has also raised the possibility
of suing to block the Select Committee subpoenas to his allies. Such
a lawsuit would provide another avenue for the judicial branch to
rule on whether Bannon, Scavino, Patel and Meadows must comply with
the committee's demands.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle
and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)
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