Sources: White House directed Bannon silence in House interview
WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon’s attorney relayed questions in real time to the White House during a House Intelligence Committee interview of the former Trump chief strategist, people familiar with the closed-door session told The Associated Press.
As lawmakers probed Bannon’s time working for President Donald Trump, Bannon’s attorney Bill Burck was asking the White House counsel’s office by phone during the Tuesday session whether his client could answer the questions. He was told by that office not to discuss his work on the transition or in the White House.
It’s unclear who Burck was communicating with in the White House. He also is representing top White House lawyer Don McGahn in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Tuesday’s conversations were confirmed by a White House official and a second person familiar with Bannon’s interview. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
‘Standard procedure’: At the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed the questions were relayed over the phone and said it was a typical process.
“Sometimes they actually have a White House attorney present in the room,” she said. “This time it was something that was relayed via phone and again was following standard procedure for an instance like this and something that will likely happen again on any other number of occasions, not just within this administration but future administrations.”
On Wednesday, the AP also confirmed that Bannon will meet with Mueller’s investigators for an interview instead of appearing before a grand jury. A person familiar with that issue confirmed the interview and said Bannon is expected to cooperate with Mueller.
It’s unclear when the interview might occur.
Burck didn’t respond to numerous phone messages. A spokeswoman for Bannon did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, declined comment.
Subpoena: Bannon refused to answer a broad array of queries from the House Intelligence Committee about his time working for Trump, leading the Republican committee chairman to authorize a subpoena.
Lawmakers were expecting a similar fight Wednesday with Trump’s White House as another senior aide, Rick Dearborn, was to appear for a private interview with the committee.
The developments brought to the forefront questions about White House efforts to control what current and former aides tell Congress about their time in Trump’s inner circle and whether Republicans on Capitol Hill would force the issue.
Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University, said that while traditionally Congress has required a formal assertion of executive privilege in order for a witness to refuse to answer a question, more recently “we’ve seen people just not answer questions without asserting privilege.”
“It’s kind of a game of separation-of-powers chicken that’s going on there,” he said. “Because nobody knows the full scope of executive privilege — other than that it’s not absolute from the Nixon case — no one really wants to push it.”
Dorf referred to the court case surrounding the Supreme Court’s rejection in 1974 of President Richard Nixon’s assertion that he could use executive privilege to prevent the release of tape recordings involving him and other aides. Dorf said that though it seems unusual for a witness’ lawyer to consult in real time with the White House about which questions can be answered, it is a “bit more respectful” than a pre-emptive blanket refusal to answer questions.