The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to hold Steve Bannon, one of former President Donald Trump's closest allies, in criminal contempt of Congress after he defied a subpoena from the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
The action marks a significant escalation in how far Democrats are willing to go to rebuke individuals who refuse to cooperate as the House select committee investigates the violent attack that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The vote by the full House to hold Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress sets up a referral to the Department of Justice, which would then have to decide whether to prosecute.
Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday said the Justice Department would review any referral, but at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, he did not say what the DOJ decision would be.
"The Department of Justice will do what it always does in such circumstances, we'll apply the facts and the law and make a decision, consistent with the principles of prosecution," Garland said.
Earlier in the afternoon, the House voted to approve the rule providing for consideration of the contempt resolution. The rule passed on a largely party-line vote of 221 to 205, with only two Republicans joining Democrats to vote in favor.
"This isn't about punishing Steve Bannon," Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House committee, said Thursday. "But Steve Bannon has led us down this path by refusing to cooperate in any way with our investigation."
He added: "We need to take a stand for the select committee's investigation and for the integrity of this body. What sort of precedent would it set for the House of Representatives if we allow a witness to ignore us flat out without facing any kind of consequences?"
Bannon has previously argued that he is unable to cooperate with the committee until matters of executive privilege are resolved by the courts.
His attorney has told the committee that "the executive privileges belong to President Trump" and "we must accept his direction and honor his invocation of executive privilege."
Next steps after the vote
Following the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to certify the report to the United States attorney for the District of Columbia. Under law, this certification then requires the United States attorney to "bring the matter before the grand jury for its action," but the Justice Department will also make its own determinations for prosecution.
Any individual who is found liable for contempt of Congress would be guilty of a crime that may result in a fine and between one and 12 months' imprisonment. But this process is rarely invoked and rarely leads to jail time.
Holding Bannon in criminal contempt through a prosecution could take years, and historically, criminal contempt cases have been derailed by appeals and acquittals.
As a result, the House's pursuit of criminal charges may be more about making an example out of Bannon and sending a message to other potential witnesses.
"I want our witnesses to understand something very plainly. If you are thinking of following the path Mr. Bannon has gone down you are on notice that this is what you'll face," Thompson said on Tuesday.
A stark partisan divide
The vast majority of House Republicans opposed the effort to Bannon in contempt of Congress, brushing aside concerns about weakening the institution's future oversight authority and rejecting accusations that they're trying to block Democrats from getting to the bottom of the January 6 insurrection.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, when pressed by CNN on Thursday on whether he's okay with people defying congressional subpoenas, said the January 6 select committee's subpoena of Bannon is "invalid."
"He has the right to go to the court to see if he has executive privilege or not. I don't know if he does or not, but neither does the committee," McCarthy said. "So they're weakening the power of Congress itself by issuing invalid subpoenas."
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of two Republicans on the special committee, criticized her colleagues Thursday for protecting Bannon.
"There are people in this chamber right now who were with me and with the rest of us on that day during that attack. People who now seem to have forgotten the danger of the moment, the assault on the Constitution, the assault on our Congress. People who you will hear argue that there is simply no legislative purpose for this committee for this investigation or for this subpoena," she said.
Cheney said the former President knew the riot was happening and took no action to stop it.
"President Trump knew it was happening. Indeed he may have been watching it all unfold on television. And yet he took no immediate action to stop it," she added.
This story has been updated with additional details.
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