Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Trump administration ordered Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon not to answer questions related to his time in the White House and on the transition team during 10 hours of congressional testimony on Tuesday, calling the move a “breathtaking…gag order by the White House.”
Schiff said Bannon was “instructed by the White House to refuse again to answer any questions concerning the time during the transition and his time in the administration.”
“The scope of this assertion of privilege—if that’s what it is—is breathtaking,” Schiff said. “It goes well beyond anything we’ve seen in this investigation … This was effectively a gag order by the White House.”
The White House said in a statement that it is “fully cooperative” with the ongoing Russia probe. However, the Trump administration didn’t directly address whether it had ordered Bannon not to answer certain questions during his testimony.
“As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
“This is part of a judicially recognized process that goes back decades. We have been fully cooperative with these ongoing investigations and encourage the committees to work with us to find an appropriate accommodation in order to ensure Congress obtains information necessary to its legitimate interests.”
Sources described the Bannon and House intel meeting as a “total free-for-all” and “brutal,” according to the Hill.
The Hill added:
The White House also sought to limit Bannon’s testimony on any conversations he had with the president after his departure from the administration in August.
Bannon has since fallen out of favor with the president, at least publicly, after the publication of a controversial book about the Trump White House in which he is quoted as calling a key Trump Tower meeting involving the president’s eldest son and a Russian lawyer “treasonous.”
Still, Schiff said, “The witness declined to answer questions based on the instruction of the White House.”
“This was the first time that we saw a witness refuse to answer questions on the instruction of the White House or on the claim that the White House might later invoke privilege in which [the majority was] not only unwilling to accept that answer but willing to act with great alacrity to subpoena that witness in real time and insist that he come back,” Schiff said.
“I certainly think that when the committee expects an executive privilege, when does that attach is the question that is sort of dominating the day. You know, at what time does it attach? During the transition or during the actual swearing in?” Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) told reporters.
“If you are part of the White House in any way and you’re talking about things that were during the campaign, but it happens to be in the White House, then what? What’s the answer? So that’s the quandary.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller obtained a separate, grand jury subpoena to force testimony from Bannon, the New York Times reported earlier on Tuesday.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said the subpoena remains in effect.
“The subpoena stays in effect and we’re going to get the answers from Mr. Bannon that we did not get today,” Conaway told reporters.