Judge rejects Bannon effort to slow walk contempt case

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A struggle over timing broke out Thursday in the new criminal contempt of Congress case against Donald Trump ally Steve Bannon as prosecutors pressed for a quick trial and Bannon’s lawyers seemed to be in no hurry for their client to have his day in court.

U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols rejected an attempt by Bannon’s defense to delay further action in the case until after the New Year, but said he’s not convinced yet that the Justice Department’s timetable is realistic either.

“I’m not convinced that I have quite enough before me to decide,” Nichols said as he discussed the schedule for the case at a brief hearing Thursday morning.

The exchange was a precursor for what will likely become the biggest battle ahead of Bannon’s criminal trial for refusing to provide documents or testimony to House investigators probing Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. Bannon is a key figure in their investigation; the Jan. 6 select committee believes he communicated with Trump at key moments in December 2020 and encouraged him to focus on stopping the Jan. 6 certification of the election.

Trump has instructed Bannon and several other allies to refuse cooperation with the Jan. 6 select committee, claiming they’re immune from subpoenas compelling them to testify before Congress — a theory with limited legal basis, particularly for a former president.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Vaughn said the thrust of the case is uncomplicated, involving about 200 documents — most of which are simply letters exchanged between Bannon’s lawyers and lawyers for the Jan. 6 committee or Trump.

“In our view, this is a very straightforward case about whether or not the defendant showed up,” she told the court, alluding to Bannon’s outright refusal to appear for a deposition before the House committee.

Vaughn asked Nichols to set a trial date for Bannon right away.

But Bannon attorney Evan Corcoran told the judge that it could take a while for his client to be ready to present a defense. Corcoran said the case presents more “complex constitutional issues” than prosecutors have portrayed, and would potentially require obtaining documents from members of Congress. That process, he said, could become lengthy.

“The government has described this as a simple case with only 200 documents, but I think it’s an oversimplification,” the defense lawyer said during the hearing, held by videoconference.

Corcoran also said the judge may want to wait for the outcome of a civil lawsuit Trump has filed challenging the legitimacy of the House’s select committee probe. It is set for oral arguments before a federal appeals court panel on Nov. 30.

“There are complex constitutional issues that are at play,” the defense attorney added. “It really makes no sense today to set a trial date that will likely be moved.”

Corcoran also repeatedly suggested that it would be unfair for Bannon’s case to cause any delay to the hundreds of criminal cases related to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.

“As a very practical matter, we’re not asking to cut in line and we understand that that is something that affects the court’s docket,” Corcoran said.

But Nichols seemed unimpressed by the Bannon lawyer’s unusual expressions of concern about cases neither he nor his client are directly involved in.

“It does seem to me that I can manage the interplay between this case and the other cases in my docket in a way that will ensure that no one will not have their day in court,” the judge replied curtly.

While Corcoran proposed reconvening next in January to discuss further steps, Nichols said that was too leisurely a pace and set another hearing for Dec. 7.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to wait, essentially a month-and-a-half or longer,” said the judge, a Trump appointee.

Bannon faces two misdemeanor charges of contempt of Congress: one for refusing to testify and another for failing to deliver any of the documents the House panel sought. Each count carries a maximum possible sentence of one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

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