Bannon, dangling possible testimony, brings new focus to Jan. 6 role

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
An image of Steve Bannon is seen on screen as the House Jan. 6 select committee holds its fourth public hearing on Capitol Hill on June 21, 2022.

WASHINGTON – Two nights before supporters of President Donald Trump were set to march on the Capitol, Steve Bannon was working to get the head of the Proud Boys out of jail.

The leader of the far-right extremist group, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested by D.C. police that night for burning a church’s Black Lives Matter banner during a demonstration the month before. When Bannon heard the news, he started making calls to help Tarrio post bail.

“We put calls out last night trying to put bail up for the guy,” Bannon said the next morning on his “War Room” podcast. “It’s just not acceptable.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Bannon said he was later waved off helping the Proud Boys, though he declined to specify who had done so. “They said they were all whack jobs so don’t get involved,” he said. Bannon also denied any direct contact with Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, the other extremist group charged with seditious conspiracy in planning the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

The dash to bail out Tarrio is just one of many episodes involving Jan. 6 that Bannon could clarify if he ends up testifying before the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol, which will hold a public hearing Tuesday that is expected to focus on extremist groups. Committee members see Bannon as a key figure because they think his podcasts contributed to radicalizing some of Trump’s supporters, and they have evidence showing that Bannon repeatedly talked to Trump and his advisers in the lead-up to Jan. 6.

Bannon also stands out, amid the scramble for pardons among lawmakers and Trump advisers working to overturn the election, as the only one who ultimately received clemency after Jan. 6. Though the reprieve was for a fraud case unrelated to Jan. 6, Bannon’s support for Trump after the election was a factor in the then-president’s last-minute decision to pardon Bannon, over the objection of his top White House lawyer and other advisers, according to a former senior administration official who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The prospect of Bannon’s testimony could turn out to be a ploy. Bannon had defied the panel’s subpoena, citing Trump’s claim of executive privilege, even though Bannon was not in the government at the time of the attack. Now, with Bannon’s trial for contempt of Congress set to begin this month, Trump agreed on Saturday to waive his privilege claim and encouraged Bannon to testify after all.

But the offer came in a combative letter emphasizing Trump’s frustrations with the hearings and eagerness to present a defense.

“I watched how unfairly you and others have been treated,” Trump said in the letter. “Therefore, if you reach an agreement on a time and place for your testimony, I will waive Executive Privilege for you, which allows for you to go in and testify truthfully and fairly, as per the request of the Unselect committee of political Thugs and Hacks, who have allowed no Due Process, no Cross-Examination, and no real Republican members or witnesses.”

Offering to testify might help Bannon in his contempt trial, which he has been seeking to delay. But the path to finding out what he knows remains far from certain. Bannon could still assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as other witnesses such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark have done.

Bannon might also insist on conditions, such as testifying on live TV, that the committee might not want to accept. In a letter to the committee, Bannon lawyer Robert J. Costello indicated that Bannon “prefers to testify at your public hearing.” The hearings have yet to feature any live witnesses aligned with Trump.

In an interview Sunday on CNN, committee member Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., raised cautions about any demand of live testimony. “Ordinarily, we do depositions, you know, this goes on for hour after hour after hour,” she said. “We want to get all our questions answered, and you can’t do that in a live format.”

So far, Bannon’s name has been hardly mentioned in the committee’s hearings. Of the six hearings so far, he came up in passing only twice, for less than 30 seconds of total screen time. The Justice Department has cited Bannon’s absence from the hearings to argue against delaying his trial for defying the committee’s subpoena, scheduled to start July 18. Bannon has a pretrial hearing set for Monday in Washington.

The panel has not telegraphed that it found any secret links between Bannon, the White House and violent extremists. “A lot of it is in plain sight,” one official on the committee said.

Bannon dismissed the prospect of an explosive new revelation. “There’s no silver bullet,” he said.

In fact, the District of Columbia has no bail system and Tarrio was not in need of assistance from Bannon. He was released from police custody on Jan. 5 and ordered by a judge to leave the District. He was not present at the Capitol when members of the Proud Boys organization are accused of acting as the leading edge of the violent siege, with some allegedly overrunning barricades, breaking the first window breached by rioters and assaulting police officers. Prosecutors have charged Tarrio and his top lieutenants with seditious conspiracy over their activities that day, alleging that he helped lead the action from Baltimore.

Even as Bannon has denied responsibility for the violence that took place on Jan. 6, he considers himself an ideological architect of the efforts to overturn the election. In particular, he credits his podcast with turning out the crowd for the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington. He also urged Trump in a Dec. 30, 2020, phone call to return to Washington from Mar-a-Lago, his Florida retreat. Bannon said he told Trump he needed to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to reject the electoral college votes on Jan. 6.

“We saved Trump,” Bannon said in his interview with The Post. “If it hadn’t been for ‘War Room,’ he was going to go to Mar-a-Lago and fritter away because the cast around him – who all testified in the hearings – didn’t want him to return.”

Speaking of incoming President Joe Biden, Bannon said he told Trump on the call: “You need to kill this administration in the crib early on just by its own incompetence and its illegitimacy,” he recounted on his podcast last year. In the interview with The Post, Bannon elaborated that his goal was to sow widespread doubts about the election results.

“We’re going to start at 35%, we’re going to get it to 40, to 45, to 50% of the country is going to question his legitimacy,” he said.

Bannon’s podcast – which was kicked off YouTube after the riot but remains one of the country’s most popular shows on Apple’s platform, with more than 200 million total downloads – gave listeners a real-time window into the plans and moves among Trump allies to keep the president in power, notwithstanding the election results.

Those discussions began even before the ballots were cast. In September 2020, Bannon’s show started exploring various conspiracy theories for how the Democrats would “steal” the election and how Trump and the Republicans could fight back, including some ideas extending past Election Day. In a Sept. 25 episode, former Trump Cabinet secretary Bill McGinley came on the show to describe a scenario for the House of Representatives to settle a disputed election in Trump’s favor.

“What happens on January 6th, let’s say for whatever reason, there is a complete meltdown in the process in one or more states, it’s still tied up in the courts and litigation has maybe gone up and down to the Supreme Court, there is no clear winner . . . and there’s just serious questions about which candidate or the electoral college slate won the vote,” McGinley, who declined to comment on the record, said on the show. “You trigger what’s called a contingent election. And that means that the House of Representatives is to immediately take up the question: Who should be president of the United States?”

The next day, Trump first raised the idea of a House vote for president during a rally outside Harrisburg, Pa. “We have an advantage if we go back to Congress,” he said. “Does everyone understand that?”

Bannon went on to feature interviews with Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, lawyers who were leading Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results in the courts and Congress.

Around the same time that Eastman was preparing confidential memos urging Pence to reject the electoral votes, listeners of Bannon’s podcast could hear Eastman publicly proclaiming the same discredited theory. Bannon repeatedly hinted that he was working closely with Trump’s legal team, including that he had been on a conference call with Eastman to discuss those theories.

“A lot depends on the courage and the spine of the individual involved,” Eastman said Jan. 2 after explaining his theory on the air.

Bannon prodded, “That’d be a nice way to say a guy named Vice President Mike Pence?”

Bannon also played a role in raising money to support efforts to challenge the election. Lin Wood, a lawyer who filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s loss in the weeks after the November 2020 election, said he received a phone call from Bannon not long after the election, offering to raise money to support Wood’s group, the Fight Back Foundation.

“He said, ‘Look, I want to help your efforts. I can raise 2, 3, 4 million dollars,'” Wood recalled in an interview.

Wood said he was wary, noting that his foundation typically only receives small-dollar donations. “When you start taking money from someone in those types of figures, I’ve always been concerned about the strings that might be attached,” he said.

Several weeks later, Wood said Bannon called again and said he had identified a donor in Chicago who was interested in giving $100,000. Still worried, Wood said the foundation placed the donation, which arrived by wire in early December, in escrow for a year to ensure that there was nothing problematic about the donor, whose name he said he could not recall. About a year later, he was advised that the money was “old and cold,” and he arranged for it to be deposited in the Fight Back Foundation’s general fund.

Text messages reviewed by The Post show the donation was organized by associates of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire who has maintained close personal and business links to Bannon. Mother Jones first reported the donation to Wood’s foundation suggested by Bannon and the link to Guo. Lawyers for Guo did not respond to a request for comment and Bannon declined to respond to questions about the episode.

In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Bannon used increasingly heated and frantic rhetoric to frame the congressional session as a climax to a constitutional crisis in which Pence would determine Trump’s future. “This gets to the heart – you go read Roman history, this is like toward how the republic fell, right, and became a totalitarian or authoritarian empire,” he said on Jan. 2. “We’re at that moment. That’s what this week is.”

He hosted Kylie Kremer, an organizer of the Jan. 6 rally, and encouraged “everybody in the Mid-Atlantic region to come.” “It all comes down to, are we going to affirm the massive landslide of Donald J. Trump?” Bannon said. “Or are we going to turn over our constitutional republic . . . to the forces of darkness?”

In between broadcasts, Bannon made appearances at a “command center” inside the Willard Hotel near the White House where Giuliani, Eastman and others were holed up plotting their pressure campaign on Pence. The day before the rally, Bannon declared, “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”

On the morning of Jan. 6, Bannon marveled at the size of the crowd forming on the National Mall and repeatedly told people they were on the “point of attack” and the “cusp of victory.”

Bannon has been evasive about his precise activities during the riot, telling the Atlantic that he didn’t recall whether he spoke with Trump. “Hey, if they come up with it, I’ll have to rethink it, but I don’t think I did,” he said.

Two days after the insurrection, the White House received a formal letter requesting a pardon for Bannon. The letter came from Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., one of the lawmakers who led the objections to the electoral college results based on false claims of fraud. The committee has heard testimony from Ali Alexander, an organizer of the Jan. 6 rally, that he was in touch with Gosar about planning the event. Gosar has not addressed that allegation.

It is not clear why Gosar sent the pardon petition, and his spokesman declined to say. The letter, which was obtained by The Post and has not been previously reported, asked Trump to pardon not only Bannon but his three co-defendants in the fraud case. Federal prosecutors accused the four men of misspending money they had raised from Trump supporters purportedly to help fulfill the president’s signature campaign promise of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Gosar’s letter assailed the case as a “political hit job” and a personal affront to Trump and his supporters. “Prosecuting Mr. Bannon is yet another example of this particular U.S. Attorney’s Office targeting people associated with you,” Gosar wrote. “To them, taking him down is taking you down by proxy.”

White House counsel Pat Cipollone opposed pardons for Bannon and the We Build the Wall supporters, the former senior administration official said, adding that Trump polled “dozens” of people on Bannon’s pardon, and talked to Bannon himself.

Cipollone testified behind closed doors on Friday. It was unclear whether Bannon’s pardon was discussed.

By midnight on Trump’s last full day in office, some of Trump’s advisers hoped they could kill Bannon’s pardon, the former senior administration official said, but Trump had been appreciative of Bannon’s vociferous support of his efforts after the election, and weighed that against some of his own personal frustrations with Bannon, and the words of his advisers.

Meanwhile, White House aide Johnny McEntee and Kris Kobach, who served on Trump’s aborted commission investigating voter fraud in the 2016 election, told lawyers for the three co-defendants that they would all be pardoned, according to a person familiar with the matter. McEntee and Kobach did not respond to requests for comment.

But of the four, only Bannon received a pardon, coming down after midnight on the 20th. Bannon declined to answer questions about the pardon.

Two of the co-defendants, Brian Kolfage and Andy Badolato, eventually pleaded guilty in the case. The other, Tim Shea, went to trial, which ended in a deadlocked jury. The Justice Department said in June it would retry the case.

For Bannon, who has repeatedly fallen in and out with Trump, the pardon conferred the imprimatur of being back in the fold. In a sign of Bannon’s enduring pull with Trump’s supporters, his podcast has become a coveted platform for pro-Trump lawmakers and candidates seeking to burnish their movement credentials and boost their fundraising.

In another sign of his influence, Bannon has encouraged listeners to take local Republican Party positions, leading to thousands of recruits around the country, according to an investigation by ProPublica.

Despite Bannon’s continued service to the former president’s cause, Trump has mostly kept him at arm’s length since the pardon, largely avoiding acknowledging him with public statements or appearances. Trump and Bannon speak to each other irregularly, with Trump more often consulting associates who are also close to Bannon. He recently spoke to Bannon, an adviser said, about whether he would waive his claim of privilege for Bannon to testify. And Trump has listened to clips of Bannon’s show at times, advisers said, with others often flagging segments for him.

Last year Trump hired Liz Harrington, an editor at Bannon’s War Room media operation, to be his spokeswoman. At a festive reunion for Trump White House alumni at a special Mar-a-Lago screening of an election-conspiracy-theory film in April, Bannon was not present. Instead, guests in the ballroom beamed in for interviews on Bannon’s podcast, including a brief surprise appearance by Trump.