The New York Times reports that special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed Steve Bannon to testify before a grand jury as part of the free-wheeling investigation of many things Trump. The Times speculates that Mueller would be willing to forgo the grand jury appearance if Bannon agrees to be questioned by investigators in the less formal setting. It’s also possible that Mueller thinks Bannon would prefer to testify pursuant to a subpoena so he can say he had no choice.
The key for Mueller is that he be able to prosecute Bannon for making false statements to him. The grand jury setting is not essential for that purpose, though it has advantages (e.g., the creation of a transcript and the availability of a much longer prison sentence).
The Times notes that Justice Department rules allow prosecutors to subpoena the targets of investigations only in rare circumstances. Thus, the issuance of the subpoena indicates that Bannon is not a target of Mueller’s investigation at this time.
What will Mueller ask Bannon about? The former White House strategist has no firsthand knowledge of the meeting between Team Trump members and that Russian lawyer. Similarly, as the Times acknowledges, he has little if any firsthand knowledge about the firing of James Comey.
To be sure, Bannon was the chief executive of the Trump campaign in October 2016 when WikiLeaks began releasing thousands of stolen personal emails from the hacked account of John Podesta. In the unlikely event that the Trump campaign had anything to do with this, Bannon might well have known about it. But this is probably a dry hole.
What Bannon does have is plenty of second hand knowledge and a big mouth. If Michael Wolff is to be believed, Bannon speculated that Trump knew about the meeting his son and others had with the Russian lawyer and even that Trump himself met with her.
Mueller will likely press Bannon on this point. He will be hoping, I imagine, that Bannon says Trump told him he knew about the meeting and/or actually met the Russians. However, this isn’t what Bannon told Wolff.
The other likely avenue of inquiry is alleged money-laundering. Wolff quoted Bannon as telling him:
This is all about money laundering. Their path to [expletive] Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner. It’s as plain as a hair on your face.
If Bannon admits saying this, Mueller’s team will have fun following up.
There is also the UAE angle. According to The Hill:
Blackwater founder Erik Prince in December detailed to [House committee] investigators a January meeting he held with a Russian banker in the Seychelles, brokered by the UAE.
Prince, who described his relationship to the Trump campaign as minimal and unofficial, acknowledged that Bannon had told him about a separate December 2016 meeting between the Trump transition team and UAE officials.
Prince said he could not remember whether his conversation with Bannon took place before or after his trip to the Seychelles. But the Dems have assumed that it took place before.
[Prince] had a meeting with Steve Bannon before he made that trip to the Seychelles traveling halfway around the world to have what he described essentially as a coincidental meeting with a Russian in a bar,” [Adam] Schiff told ABC News.
“Which just happened to be a head of one of the Russian Investment Banks. So we’d like to know whether Steve Bannon was involved in establishing any kind of a back channel of with the Russians.”
I imagine Robert Mueller would like to know the same thing.
The White House may fear that, Bannon, having nothing left to lose, will provide injurious testimony to Mueller. In this connection, I found Breitbart’s story on the subpoena of interest. Bannon’s former publication plays the story straight, largely tracking what the Times reported. At the end, though, there is this:
Bannon’s comments in [Wolff’s] book prompted the president’s fury, but he has since indicated that his anger may not be permanent.
UPDATE: Today, before the House Intelligence Committee, Bannon reportedly refused to answer questions about his time in the White House or during the transition after the 2016 election. The Committee has therefore issued a subpoena.