Long-time Donald Trump ally Steve Bannon could face criminal prosecution for refusing to co-operate with an investigation into the deadly January 6th attack on the US Capitol after the House of Representatives voted Thursday to hold him in contempt of Congress.
The Democratic-led chamber voted 229 to 202 with nine Republicans joining Democrats to recommend the charges against Bannon, who served as an aide to the former Republican president.
The matter will now be referred to the US Justice Department, where US atttorney general Merrick Garland will make the final decision on whether to prosecute.
Bannon has refused to comply with subpoenas from the January 6th Select Committee seeking documents and his testimony, citing Mr Trump's insistence – disputed by some legal scholars – that his communications are protected by the legal doctrine of executive privilege.
"What sort of precedent would it set for the House of Representatives if we allow a witness to ignore us?" Democrat Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Select Committee, said in debate before the vote.
The select committee voted unanimously on Tuesday in favour of the charges.
The Democratic-led panel hopes the threat of jail time – contempt of Congress carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and a $100,000 (€86,000) fine – encourages co-operation from the 18 other Trump aides and rally organisers who also have been subpoenaed.
Mr Garland has yet to indicate how the department will respond. He told a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday the department would "apply the facts" and make decisions "consistent with the principles of prosecution."
Most of Trump's fellow Republicans in Congress opposed even creating either an independent commission or a select committee to investigate the events surrounding January 6th. That day thousands of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol after he urged them in a fiery speech to protest his defeat by Democrat Joe Biden in a November 2020 election that Trump falsely claims was stolen.
Only two Republicans – Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger – are on the nine-member select committee.
The contempt of Congress statute, passed in 1857, states that the US justice department has a duty to bring a House contempt citation before a grand jury.
But the justice department historically has said it makes the ultimate decision about whether to prosecute individuals who defy congressional subpoenas. The last successful prosecution for contempt of Congress was in 1974 when a judge found Watergate conspirator G Gordon Liddy guilty.
Asked about the vote at his weekly news conference on Thursday, Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said the subpoena for Bannon to testify was “invalid,” making the same executive privilege argument Bannon did.
Four people died on the day of the assault, and one Capitol police officer died the next day of injuries sustained in defense of the seat of government. Hundreds of police officers were injured and four have since taken their own lives.
The select committee argued that Bannon had made statements suggesting he knew ahead of time about “extreme events” that would take place on January 6th, when Congress was scheduled to certify Mr Biden as the winner of the presidential election.
Bannon said on a January 5th podcast that "all hell is going to break loose tomorrow." The next day, mobs of Trump supporters, many chanting "Stop the Steal" and "Hang Mike Pence, " attacked the Capitol as vice-president Pence and lawmakers met to certify the election.
The assault forced the politicians, congressional staff and journalists to flee as crowds rampaged through the building, raiding offices, smashing windows and stealing computers and other equipment.
The vote certification was delayed for several hours, but went ahead – despite votes against it by nearly 147 Republican members of Congress.
Mr Trump has continued to insist falsely that his defeat was the result of fraud. Multiple courts, state election officials and members of Mr Trump’s own administration have rejected that claim. – Reuters