The Memo: Democrats may rue pursuit of Bannon

Niall Stanage 11/16/21 06:16 PM EST

Democrats and other critics of former President Trump celebrated when criminal charges were leveled against Stephen Bannon late last week.

But the political downside of the pursuit of Bannon is becoming clearer by the day.

There’s no guarantee that the underlying purpose of the prosecution — to compel Bannon to cooperate with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection — will work.

Bannon may ultimately prefer the risk of a fairly short jail sentence, and the martyrdom it would confer on him from Trump supporters, over testifying.

Even if he were to cooperate, the question then becomes whether the public will learn anything more damning than it already knows about Bannon and his former boss.

After all, Bannon said on his podcast the day before the riot that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” And Trump’s central role in inciting the insurrection was so blatant that he became the first president in American history to be impeached twice.

Above all, the criminal case has given Bannon the biggest platform he has enjoyed in years.

The news that he had been indicted on two counts of contempt of Congress on Friday was the lead story on the websites of The New York Times and other leading news organizations.

Bannon’s initial court appearance on Monday was another media circus, with network newscasts running footage of Trump’s former chief White House strategist lambasting the prosecution and President Biden. Bannon live streamed his comments outside the court on the social network Gettr, a favorite among pro-Trump conservatives.

On Thursday, Bannon will get another bite of the publicity cherry if, as expected, he is formally arraigned.

Bannon “revels in it. He loves it,” said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, who compared the former Trump aide’s zeal for media attention to that of another associate of the former president, Roger Stone.

Bannon’s ardor for the spotlight is well known throughout Washington — including among reporters who find him more personally engaging than his sinister public persona suggests.

He had seemed to be a marginalized figure after Trump disowned him back in early 2018 following the publication of a damaging book by the journalist Michael Wolff. But Bannon ultimately made his way back into Trump’s good graces, conferring with him following the then-president’s election loss last year.

Now, in seeking to get details of what exactly was said between Trump and Bannon, the former aide’s adversaries have restored him to the center of the political stage. From there, he is sure to amplify Trump’s fictions about election fraud, among other things.

But does all of that mean that Democrats and Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice (DOJ) are wrong to have pressed the case against him?

Not necessarily.

The DOJ would presumably not pursue the case if it was not confident of conviction. Announcing the indictment, Garland said he was honoring a promise to “show the American people by word and deed that the department adheres to the rule of law.”

Allowing Trump and Bannon together to thumb their noses at a congressional inquiry into the grave attack on the Capitol was simply unacceptable for most Democrats and many other Trump critics.

Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the chairman and vice chairwoman of the Jan. 6 committee said in a statement that the indictment “should send a clear signal to anyone who thinks they can ignore the Select Committee or try to stonewall our investigation: No one is above the law.”

Some prominent Democrats were even more emphatic.

The indictment showed “that even the insurrectionist allies of Donald Trump are not above the law and the American justice system is back in business,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) tweeted.

“Welcome back to the rule of law,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) tweeted as the news of Bannon’s indictment broke.

But, for Democrats, the problem is that the enemy — Bannon and the GOP — gets a vote too.

In Bannon’s case, that means characteristically pugnacious rhetoric outside the courthouse about how he is “taking down the Biden regime” and how his criminal prosecution is going to be “the misdemeanor from hell” for Biden, Garland and others.

More substantively, the door is now open to future use of the same process by Republicans at whatever point they win back control of Congress — an outcome that looks odds-on to happen a year from now.

Some Trump loyalists are already salivating at the prospect.

“Joe Biden has eviscerated Executive Privilege,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted on Friday.

Referring to key Biden aides, he added, “There are a lot of Republicans eager to hear testimony from Ron Klain and Jake Sullivan when we take back the House.”

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) complained, also on Twitter, that during former President Obama’s time in office, both former Attorney General Eric Holder and former IRS official Lois Lerner were held in contempt of Congress and “no indictments or arrests were made.”

Even some Republicans critical of Trump question whether the precedents currently being set will have bad consequences further down the line.

“This is dangerous ground,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist who has been strongly critical of Trump for years. “It’s tit-for-tat. When you have power, you don’t use it to govern, you use it to exact revenge from your political enemies.”

Others, including Lichtman, counter by saying that Democrats need to show some determination in their pursuit of figures such as Bannon.

“One of the failings of the Democrats is that they don’t have much of a backbone,” he said. “Republicans are ruthless, they will do whatever it takes.”

Democrats are trying to take a page from that playbook now.

But the risks are higher than they might have imagined.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.