News & Politics

Is 'Sloppy Steve' Bannon Now Trump’s Biggest Problem?

After a day of dramatic testimony and an unexpected subpoena, the big question is: What does Steve Bannon know?

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Around the first of the year, the New York Post's Page Six published a blind item about the Russia investigation grand jury in Washington in which an alleged witness told the paper:

The grand jury room looks like a Bernie Sanders rally. Maybe they found these jurors in central casting, or at a Black Lives Matter rally in Berkeley.

The source went on to note that 11 of the 20 jurors are African-American and that "there was only one white male in the room, and he was a prosecutor."

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This was briefly taken up by the right-wing media, which charged that this proved the whole process was rigged against Donald Trump, apparently on the assumption that black people could not possibly judge him fairly. That was strangely reminiscent of candidate Trump's insistence during the campaign that the judge in the Trump University case could not be fair because of his Mexican heritage. Indeed, that wasn't the only echo of Trump's own words. As Think Progress pointed out at the time: "whoever leaked this tidbit to the New York Post sounds an awful lot like Donald Trump."

Think Progress noted that the use of the words "central casting" was the first major tip-off, since that's an old-fashioned phrase Trump is particularly known for. MSNBC's Steve Benen even wrote a story last February asking why the president is so "preoccupied" with it. An even bigger clue is that Trump and Page Six columnist Richard Johnson have a close relationship going back decades. Last month, Johnson even wrote a column called "Richard Johnson's life with The Donald."

Between the signature phrase, the familiar racism and the relationship with the author, it's not much of a stretch to suspect that Trump himself was the source of this sneering little story. The fact that it would be shortsighted and counterproductive to insult members of a grand jury that's hearing evidence in a criminal case in which you may be implicated doesn't rule him out. If anything, it's another bit of evidence pointing in Trump's direction.

That story came to mind upon reading the news this week about former Trump campaign head and White House adviser Steve Bannon testifying before the House Intelligence Committee and being subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller's office. I couldn't help but think about Trump's scathing statement that Bannon had "lost his mind," and the tweet calling him "sloppy Steve," and wonder whether anyone had warned Trump that insulting a man who had been in the highest reaches of the campaign, the transition and the administration might not be the best strategy. Pushing for him to be fired and cast out of the movement he helped create just doesn't seem like a savvy move. It would have been easy to blow off the Wolff book as fiction and give Bannon a pass to keep him inside the tent. A man with a lot of ammunition and nothing to lose is dangerous.

This week, Bannon appeared before the House Intelligence Committee for about 10 hours and did something nobody else has been able to do. Members of both parties, who have not been able to agree on anything for months, came together to protest Bannon's claim of some form of executive privilege that has never existed before. They were upset enough that when Bannon's lawyer explained that he was making the claim because his testimony was voluntary, they quickly drafted a subpoena and gave it to him so that he could say he was compelled to talk.

It didn't work. According to Bannon and his attorney, the White House would not allow him to speak about anything to do with the presidential transition, the administration or any conversations he'd had with the president after leaving the White House. That's way beyond the scope of any legitimate executive privilege.

It sounds as though it was quite the three-ring circus. For instance, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports:

Bannon attacked the Republicans running these congressional committees for choosing to investigate the Trump campaign and Russia. He said it was part of an "establishment" plan to try to "nullify" the election result. Gowdy challenged him on that, asking Bannon who is this establishment you refer to who is trying to nullify Trump's victory? Bannon answered: Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Gowdy countered that Bannon couldn't have it both ways. Was he also referring to Trump confidant Kevin McCarthy — the leader of the Republican House conference — who is surely part of the same Ryan-McConnell "establishment?"

There's no word on how Bannon responded to that. But according to Swan he did "slip up" early on with a particularly damning little bit of info. He admitted that he'd had a conversation with former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, former press secretary Sean Spicer and former legal spokesman Mark Corallo about Donald Trump Jr.'s infamous Trump Tower meeting with the Russians. (Corallo later reportedly resigned over the cover-up.) That got the committee very excited, but Bannon clammed up afterwards and said he wished he could say more.

How funny that Bannon would drop that one little hint of inside knowledge of the single most important part of the puzzle -- a possible conspiracy and cover-up -- and nothing else. One might even suspect he did it on purpose just to let the White House know that even though they had claimed executive privilege, he was still in the driver's seat.

It was around the time of the supposedly inadvertent slip that word came into the committee hearing that The New York Times was reporting that Bannon had been subpoenaed by the Mueller grand jury. Presumably Bannon and his lawyer knew about that, but they hadn't mentioned it to the committee, which had to pause its questioning to make sure it was not interfering with the Mueller probe. We now know that the FBI had shown up at Bannon's house with the subpoenas on Jan. 9. We don't know why Mueller's team didn't ask him to come in voluntarily as they have done with everyone else, but in any case, as of Wednesday, he has agreed to do just that.

It's all very odd. Nobody else has been subpoenaed out of the blue by the special counsel, and nobody else has been instructed by the White House to claim such an expansive version of executive privilege before a congressional committee. It would seem that all the parties believe there is something unique about what Bannon has to offer.

A source close to Bannon told NBC News that “he’ll answer any questions” Mueller wants to ask. And why not? Donald Trump made sure that he has plenty of time on his hands and nothing left to lose.

 

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.