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Steve Bannon Sentenced to Four Months in Prison for Contempt of Congress

The Wall Street Journal 10/21/2022 Sadie Gurman
© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—A federal judge sentenced Steve Bannon to four months in prison for defying a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and said the former Trump strategist would remain free while he appeals his conviction.

“The sentence I am imposing reflects the fact that there can be more culpable ways to be in contempt of Congress than Mr. Bannon’s conduct,” U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols said Friday. “But I do believe Mr. Bannon does have some culpability here.”

Mr. Bannon was convicted in July on two counts of contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the committee as it sought information about the events leading up to the riot, in which supporters of former President Donald Trump sought to delay the certification of President Biden’s victory. The panel was pursuing information on what Mr. Bannon may have done to help Mr. Trump try to undo the election results.

Judge Nichols said Mr. Bannon could be released while he appeals his conviction, raising the prospect of years of litigation and a Supreme Court petition before the case is finished.

Mr. Bannon walked out of the courthouse after the hearing. “This thing about ‘I’m above the law’ is an absolute and total lie,” he said to reporters, adding: “We’ll have a very vigorous appeals process.”

The judge sentenced Mr. Bannon to four months on each of the two contempt counts, but said they could be served concurrently once any appeals fail. He also imposed a $6,500 fine on Mr. Bannon, whose lawyers had argued he should get no punishment beyond probation.

Federal prosecutors had recommended a six-month prison sentence and $200,000 fine for what they described in court documents as Mr. Bannon’s “bad-faith strategy of defiance and contempt.”

“He had no interest in compliance,” Assistant U.S. Attorney J.P. Cooney said during the Friday hearing. “He had an interest in making a public spectacle of the committee’s hearings…Throughout this case, the defendant has tried to make it about nothing other than politics and retribution. He has acted as if he is above the law. He is not.”

Mr. Bannon said he didn’t cooperate with the committee because of legal advice he received and concerns about executive privilege, a legal doctrine that protects the confidentiality of some White House communications.

“Mr. Bannon hired an experienced lawyer…and that lawyer told Mr. Bannon that Mr. Bannon’s hands were tied,” David Schoen, one of Mr. Bannon’s lawyers, told the judge. “He could not comply with the subpoena, and the only lawful course he could take…would be to do exactly what Mr. Bannon did. That’s not a man who thinks he is above the law. That’s a man who is acting to the greatest values we hold in this country.”

Mr. Cooney called the executive privilege claim a “smokescreen,” telling the judge, “If the defendant intended to faithfully invoke executive privilege, to faithfully rely on his advice of counsel, he would have shown up.” Instead, he said, Mr. Bannon “never lifted a finger” to supply documents or hear the committee’s questions.

Judge Nichols, who was appointed to the federal bench by Mr. Trump, agreed with prosecutors that Mr. Bannon had shown no remorse or intent to comply. But, he added that even though Mr. Bannon’s attorneys’ advice “may have been overly aggressive or misguided, it does appear to some extent Mr. Bannon was responding to that advice.”

At Mr. Bannon’s trial in July, Judge Nichols blocked his lawyers from directly making such executive privilege arguments to the jury, saying they weren’t supported by the law. That and other pretrial rulings hobbled Mr. Bannon’s defense, his attorneys said, adding they would launch an aggressive appeal, including a petition to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“Mr. Bannon should make no apology,” Mr. Schoen said. “He proceeded based on his reasonable, constitutional belief.”

The Justice Department declined to prosecute two other Trump advisers whom Congress declared in contempt—Mr. Trump’s final chief of staff Mark Meadows, and Dan Scavino, deputy chief of staff for communications in the Trump White House. Both Messrs. Meadows and Scavino engaged in some cooperation with the committee before cutting off talks. Mr. Meadows provided communications before ending his cooperation.

Another Trump adviser, Peter Navarro, has been charged with two counts of contempt of Congress and is expected to face trial next month.

Mr. Bannon, a strategist during the beginning of the Trump administration, wasn’t a White House employee around the time of the 2020 election but continued to advise Mr. Trump during that period. The night before the January 2021 riot at the Capitol, Mr. Bannon said on his podcast: “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”

The Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed Mr. Bannon in September 2021 for testimony and documents in connection with the events surrounding the attack, referring him to the Justice Department for prosecution when he ignored it. Prosecutors charged him two months later.

Mr. Bannon has remained a vocal opponent of the committee and rejected opportunities to comply until days before his trial, when he made a last-minute offer to testify to the Jan. 6 committee at a public hearing, a move prosecutors called a stunt to avoid prosecution.

The contempt case isn’t the only legal peril Mr. Bannon faces. He was indicted in New York in September on state charges of money laundering and other crimes in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud donors to a border-wall nonprofit. Mr. Bannon has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

That case is similar to a 2020 federal fraud case against Mr. Bannon that also involved conduct related to building a border wall, one of Mr. Trump’s signature promises. Mr. Trump pardoned Mr. Bannon in the federal case on his last day in office.

Write to Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com

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