Investigations, privileges, and Bannon’s gamble on contempt

On Tuesday, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon refused to answer questions from the House Intelligence Committee concerning his time in the Trump transition and on the President’s staff.  He was immediately subpoenaed, and required to appear again yesterday.  As Politico reports here, he communicated to the Committee that its demand was unreasonable.  He further indicated that he would be working with the White House to determine whether it would be asserting executive privilege to prevent him from testifying.  Chief of Staff John Kelly indicated on Wednesday, however, that the White House had not asserted executive privilege on Bannon’s behalf, contradicting some earlier understandings.  See The Hill report here.

If Kelly is right, then Bannon’s action fits a pattern of witnesses in the congressional Russia investigations simply choosing, on their own, when they will answer questions and when they will not, with no apparent consequences.

Several problems emerge from this saga.

1.  Bannon cannot assert executive privilege.  Only the President can.  Bannon’s apparent assertion Tuesday (if Kelly was right) and again yesterday, is based on what I call preemptive executive privilege.  This is when a witness hypothesizes that an answer might possibly implicate executive privilege, even though it has not been invoked, so the witness will preemptively refuse to answer based on the future possibility of a presidential invocation.  This is problematic, and Congress should put a stop to it.  Unless there is a clear basis for a legitimate assertion of the privilege—in which case there is an argument that Congress should be sensitive to the President’s constitutional prerogatives—Congress should demand that the witness answer or, if not already under subpoena, be subpoenaed and then held in contempt for any refusal to comply.  In most cases, Congress’s prerogatives will outweigh these preemptive assertions.

2.  Bannon was also issued a subpoena to testify before the grand jury in the Special Counsel’s criminal probe, though apparently he is now being allowed to meet with federal prosecutors outside of the grand jury environment.  Bannon is reportedly saying that he will tell the Special Counsel “everything,” (see Daily Beast coverage here) though he apparently believes he does not have to answer to Congress (yet).  Bannon may be relying on an oft-heard claim about executive privilege and its basis in the separation of powers—it can be invoked against Congress but not in a probe within the executive branch.

This view misapprehends the privilege as it applies (to the extent that it does) before Congress.  First, it is wrong to suggest that the mere invocation of the privilege in a congressional investigation is per se adequate to enforce it.  While it is true that executive privilege has its foundations in the separation of powers, it is not true that any invocation of it in the courts or before Congress is necessarily effective.  The Supreme Court has never held that a congressional investigation must yield to a claim of executive privilege, and there is precedent for the opposite conclusion.  See, e.g., House Comm. on the Judiciary v. Miers, 558 F. Supp.2d 53 (D.D.C. 2008).  Of course, usually these kinds of disputes are resolved through accommodation, and that may well happen here.  Perhaps it should. But Congress could seek enforcement of the Bannon subpoena even if there is an invocation of the privilege.

My guess is that Bannon is betting against that.  Bannon clearly knows that he cannot avoid the Special Counsel through a claim of executive privilege, see United States v. Nixon, and yet I would imagine that Bannon is counting on Congress not seeking enforcement of the subpoena.  He has ample reason to bet on that, given this Congress’s lax enforcement of its prerogatives with other witnesses.  Or perhaps he is ultimately counting on a process of accommodation.  So, assuming arguendo that there is an invocation of the privilege on which Bannon could theoretically rely, the question is whether Congress will have the institutional backbone to enforce it, and call Bannon’s bluff.  (On the other hand, if the White House refuses to assert the privilege, perhaps Bannon will comply; or perhaps he will continue to resist and simply gamble on non-enforcement).

3.  Bannon refused to answer Tuesday and was subpoenaed.  On the spot.  And yet other witnesses from the Trump campaign have refused to answer questions and were not subjected to a subpoena.

In particular, consider that Donald Trump Jr. recently appeared before the Committee and refused to answer questions about his discussions with his father, raising a bizarre claim of attorney-client privilege (which has been largely debunked, see here).  Even if the assertion was legitimate, the attorney-client privilege, unlike executive privilege, is not a constitutionally-based privilege, and Congress could simply rule that the privilege should yield to the need for disclosure of the information it seeks.  If that is the case, then why did Trump Jr. not receive a subpoena?  Why has the Committee not compelled him, and others who have balked at answering certain questions, to appear again before the Committee and give the requested information or be subject to a contempt prosecution (as, apparently, is now being contemplated for Bannon)?

Investigative power is meaningless unless Congress is willing to compel testimony and punish non-compliance; otherwise, witnesses have no incentive to play ball with Congress.  The contempt power is one of the most important tools available to Congress.  And recent history shows that congressional Republicans know how to use it (ask Lois Lerner and Eric Holder).

If a Republican Congress can hold Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to give testimony after a bungled assertion of the Fifth Amendment privilege (a constitutional privilege, and one that was later validated by the DOJ), then surely it can demand answers after an absurd assertion of the attorney-client privilege or a wholly preemptive assertion of executive privilege that probably doesn’t apply anyway.  If, like me, you think that it is critical that Congress investigate Russian active measures and take legislative steps to thwart further Russian influence, then it seems clear that Congress needs full information about Russia’s activities in 2016.  These witnesses may have important and useful information, and they should be required to give it, in aid of the legislative function.

The failure to insist upon important information from witnesses during a critical investigation offers yet another example of the damage that can be done to constitutional government when legislators become slaves to party loyalty and/or the president of their party.  Republicans in Congress must have a fuller appreciation for their role in the separation of powers and their institutional prerogatives (Democrats had the same problem during the last Administration).  They seem to have finally awoken to this notion when dealing with Steve Bannon.  But will they hold his feet to the fire?  And if so, what about the others who have simply taken a pass on cooperating?