UPDATE 7/22: Steve Bannon was found guilty on both counts of contempt of Congress by the jury on Friday.
Steve Bannon once famously declared that the way to win in politics is to “flood the zone with shit.”
As it turns out, that was his master plan to beat his criminal rap, too.
The right-wing political firebrand brought more than his baffling multi-collar style to his criminal trial this week; he brought his trademark conspiratorial whataboutism, inviting the jury down a rabbit hole into a land where they must doubt much of what they learned in the Washington, D.C., courtroom, including evidence they saw with their own eyes.
Deadlines clearly printed on official documents were really up for debate, Bannon’s lawyers argued. And an official signature could have been forged by anyone, they told the judge, without explaining why an official would fake their own signature. We’ll never know!
Bannon faces two misdemeanor counts of contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas for testimony and documents from the committee investigating the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021. After a week of arguments in a case that could send Bannon to prison up to two years, jury deliberations kick off Friday.
Heading into trial, independent lawyers said Bannon appeared to have nowhere left to hide, despite his boisterous pledge to go “medieval” on his enemies and turn the proceedings into the “misdemeanor from hell” for his political opponents.
But instead of raising hellfire, Bannon fell back on his signature move: create a crap-cloud of confusion. Bannon and his team did not flinch from inviting the court to question humankind’s ability to know anything at all, especially if the facts brushed up against the political life of America’s capital in any way whatsoever.
“My single request to you is to ask yourself: Is this piece of evidence affected by politics?” Bannon attorney Evan Corcoran told the jury weighing the political firebrand’s criminal fate. Politics is the “lifeblood” of Congress, Corcoran intoned, suggesting that seemingly no fact in Washington, D.C. could ever be held to be true beyond a reasonable doubt.
On Thursday, Corcoran told Judge Carl Nichols that no one could be sure that the subpoenas Bannon received were legitimate, because it could not be known for certain whether they had definitely been signed by the Democratic chairman of the Jan. 6 committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson.
The documents bear Thompson’s signature. But because the judge had barred Bannon from actually dragging Thompson into the courtroom—saying he would not let Bannon turn the court into a “political circus”—Bannon’s lawyers could not secure Thompon’s testimony about authoring and signing the subpoena.
As long as the signature was in question, Corcoron said, Bannon’s case should be tossed out because it was possible these subpoenas “were not, in fact, an official position of the select committee.”
“This should raise a doubt about the prosecution’s case,” Corcoran told the jury during the defense’s closing argument. “That could be a reasonable doubt about whether chairman Thompson signed the subpoena.”
During closing arguments, Corcoran began to show the jury multiple letters which he asserted featured different versions of Thompson’s signature from the subpoenas. He was quickly stopped by the judge—although not before managing to plant the issue in jurors’ minds.
After closing arguments ended, Judge Nichols instructed the jury not to consider the signature issue as a possible defense.
Bannon did not take the stand in his trial, during which he would have been forced to testify under penalty of perjury. But he made his positions known in brief, passionate speeches outside the courtroom every afternoon, sporting his trademark four layers in the sweltering D.C. humidity.
On Wednesday, Bannon insisted that chairman Thompson’s recent positive COVID diagnosis must be a ruse to avoid testifying in Bannon’s trial. (Even though, of course, the judge had barred his lawyers from calling Thompson as a witness.)
“What are the odds that on the very day this trial starts, he comes up with COVID?” Bannon asked while grinning and waving his hands in the air. “It’s one billion to one! Why is Bennie Thompson not here defending his committee?… Does he really have COVID? Has anybody checked at all, or is he just saying he has COVID?”
Back inside the courtroom, Bannon’s attorneys’ most serious legal play was to try to raise doubts about whether the deadline for the subpoenas was actually firmly set in mid-October 2021, even though that’s explicitly what the documents Bannon acknowledged receiving say.
“No reasonable juror could find that Mr. Bannon refused to comply with dates that were in flux, that were open,” Corcoran said.
On the witness stand, Kristin Amerling, a lawyer and senior staffer for the Jan. 6 committee, pushed back hard on any ambiguity on the documents or that the dates had moved. Amerling testified that, no, the dates were not flexible—not by a minute.
Then came the most absurd single moment of the trial. Corcoran led a series of pointed questions about the fact that Amerling belonged to the same book club as prosecutor Molly Gaston.
Amerling said she hadn’t attended the book club in a year, and she couldn’t remember ever seeing prosecutor Gaston in the club.
But the implication hung clearly in the air: The questions invited the jury to wonder whether this book club might augur some kind of conspiracy to take down Bannon.
Amerling looked tense, and the jury perked up. In the media room, two-dozen reporters watched the proceedings on closed circuit television, and laughed when someone cracked, “he’s throwing the book club at ‘em.” But beyond the implication of political bias, the book club questions went nowhere.
“I’m not against book clubs,” Corcoran said later, during his closing argument. “But why would Amerling try to hide her personal relationship with the prosecutor?”
Bannon has used his big play—clog the pipes!—over and over again during his infamous career to become one of the most high-profile political operators in America.
“This is not about persuasion: This is about disorientation,” the writer Jonathan Rauch once said about Bannon’s famous line.
Now, as the jury deliberates, the question is whether that strategy will be enough to keep him from ever seeing the inside of a jail cell.
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