Steve Bannon, a longtime ally of former President Donald Trump, has today been indicted on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress after he defied a subpoena from the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
The Justice Department said Bannon, 67, was indicted on one count for refusing to appear for a deposition last month and the other for refusing to provide documents in response to the committee's subpoena. He is expected to surrender to authorities on Monday local time and will appear in court that afternoon, a law enforcement official told the AP. The person was granted anonymity to discuss the case.
The indictment came as a second witness, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, defied his own subpoena from the committee today and as Trump has escalated his legal battles to withhold documents and testimony about the insurrection.
The chairman of the January 6 panel, Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson, said he will recommend contempt charges against Meadows next week.
If the House votes to hold Meadows in contempt, that recommendation could also be sent to the Justice Department for a possible indictment.
"Mr Meadows, Mr Bannon, and others who go down this path won't prevail in stopping the Select Committee's effort getting answers for the American people about January 6th, making legislative recommendations to help protect our democracy, and helping ensure nothing like that day ever happens again," Democrat Thompson and the vice chairwoman of the panel, Republican Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, said in a statement.
The indictment is a victory for House Democrats, who saw dozens of Trump officials decline testimony and defy subpoenas during his presidency. The charges support the authority of Congress to investigate the executive branch and signal potential consequences for those who refuse to cooperate.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said Bannon's indictment reflects the Justice Department's "steadfast commitment" to ensuring that the department adheres to the rule of law. Each count carries a minimum of 30 days' jail and as long as a year behind bars.
The indictment alleges Bannon didn't appear before the committee as subpoenaed or produce required documents. It says he also didn't communicate with the committee in any way from the time he received the subpoena on September 24 until October 7 when his lawyer sent a letter, seven hours after the documents were due.
Bannon, who worked at the White House at the beginning of the Trump administration and currently serves as host of the conspiracy-minded "War Room" podcast, is a private citizen who "refused to appear to give testimony as required by a subpoena," the indictment says.
Bannon's attorney did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. When Bannon declined to appear for his deposition in October, his attorney said the former Trump adviser had been directed by a lawyer for Trump citing executive privilege not to answer questions.
Officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations have been held in contempt by Congress, but criminal indictments for contempt are exceedingly rare. The most recent notable examples of criminal penalties for not testifying before Congress date to the 1970s, including when President Richard Nixon's aide G Gordon Liddy was convicted of misdemeanour charges for refusing to answer questions about his role in the Watergate scandal.
This is not the first time Bannon has faced legal peril. In August of last year, he was pulled from a luxury yacht and arrested on allegations that he and three associates ripped off donors trying to fund a southern border wall. Trump later pardoned Bannon in the final hours of his presidency.
Meadows defied his subpoena today after weeks of discussions with the committee. His lawyer said Meadows has a "sharp legal dispute" with the panel as Trump has claimed executive privilege over his testimony, as he had with Bannon's.
The former Republican congressman's refusal to comply comes amid the legal battles between the committee and Trump as the former president has claimed privilege over documents and interviews the lawmakers are demanding. The White House said in a letter on Thursday that President Joe Biden would waive any privilege that would prevent Meadows from cooperating with the committee, prompting his lawyer to say Meadows wouldn't comply.
"Legal disputes are appropriately resolved by courts," said the lawyer, George Terwilliger. "It would be irresponsible for Mr Meadows to prematurely resolve that dispute by voluntarily waiving privileges that are at the heart of those legal issues."
As the sitting president, Biden has so far waived most of Trump's assertions of privilege over documents. US District Judge Tanya Chutkan has backed Biden's position, noting in one ruling this week that" "Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President."
The panel's proceedings and attempts to gather information have been delayed as Trump appealed Chutkan's rulings. On Thursday, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the release of some of the White House records the panel is seeking, giving that court time to consider Trump's arguments.
Still, the House panel is continuing its work, and lawmakers have already interviewed more than 150 witnesses so far as they attempt to build the most comprehensive record yet of how a violent mob of Trump's supporters broke into the Capitol and temporarily halted the certification of Biden's victory.
The committee has subpoenaed almost three dozen people, including former White House staffers, Trump allies who strategised about how to overturn his defeat and people who organised the giant rally on the National Mall the morning of January 6. While some, like Meadows and Bannon, have balked, others have spoken to the panel and provided documents.
Like Bannon, Meadows is a key witness for the panel. He was Trump's top aide in the time between Trump's loss in the November election and the insurrection, and was one of several people who pressured state officials to try and overturn the results. He was also by Trump's side during much of the time, and he could provide information about what the former president was saying and doing during the attack.
"You were the president's chief of staff and have critical information regarding many elements of our inquiry," Thompson wrote in a letter accompanying the September 23 subpoena to Meadows. "It appears you were with or in the vicinity of President Trump on January 6, had communications with the president and others on January 6 regarding events at the Capitol and are a witness regarding activities of that day."