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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Trump's once favourite aide now central to Russia investigation

Steve Bannon was fired by US president but special prosecutor is on his tail  

Steve Bannon leaves after testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, January 16, 2018. Zach Gibson / Bloomberg
Steve Bannon leaves after testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, January 16, 2018. Zach Gibson / Bloomberg

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, has become embroiled in the Russia investigation, sparking anger at his refusal to answer questions in Congress, but experts warn he may find it harder to avoid offering evidence when he appears before a grand jury.

Mr Bannon held key positions in the final weeks of Mr Trump’s election campaign and during the early part of his presidency, making him a crucial witness to investigators probing ties between the Trump team and Moscow.

On Tuesday he appeared before a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, where members said he cited “executive privilege” to avoid answering questions.

“This was effectively a gag order by the White House,” said Adam Schiff, the most senior Democrat on the committee.

Separately, it emerged that Mr Bannon had been subpoenaed by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, to testify before a grand jury in a probe of alleged ties between Russia and Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

Reports later surfaced that he planned to fully co-operate with Mr Mueller and was under no White House restrictions.

“He can say whatever the hell he wants to say to him about whatever topic that he wants," a source familiar with Mr Bannon’s thinking told the website Axios.

The subpoena set off intense speculation about Mr Mueller’s motives. Other high-profile figures – such as Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff – have been interviewed informally.

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor running to become Illinois attorney general, said investigators generally preferred to meet witnesses in an informal setting.

However, prosecutors may have taken a tactical decision to use a grand jury forum to subject Mr Bannon to a tougher, cross-examination style form of questioning.

“The most likely reason that Mueller prefers to have Bannon testify before the grand jury is because his attorney won't be present and it will be easier to catch Bannon off-guard and receive truthful answers. Testifying before a grand jury is intimidating,” Mariotti wrote on Twitter.

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Others said it was still possible that the subpoena was a tactic to persuade Mr Bannon to meet investigators in a less formal setting, or that it could provide cover for a witness who had already decided to offer evidence.

Ric Simmons, Professor for the Administration of Justice and Rule of Law at the Ohio State University, said Mr Mueller had done a good job preventing leaks and hiding his strategy so far.

“So we don't know if this means that Bannon is co-operative and this subpoena provides cover for him - so he can claim he didn’t want to give testimony but was legally forced to do so - or if it means that Bannon is not co-operative and this is the only way to get him to give information.

“Either way, the subpoeana could be withdrawn if Bannon agrees to come in to the special prosecutor’s office for an interview, as other current and former administration officials have done.

“It certainly means that the investigation against the Trump administration is still ongoing and reaching into the highest levels of the administration.”

Mr Bannon was a champion of Mr Trump’s populist “America First” agenda and one the candidate’s closest aides.

He was appointed chief executive of Mr Trump’s election campaign in August 2016. That put him in a key position at a time when Democratic emails stolen by Moscow-linked hackers were being published and when senior Trump advisers were subject to approaches by a number of Russians.

His post in the White House also last year gave him a close up view of the firing of FBI director James Comey, who was then heading the Russia investigation. His dismissal raised allegations of obstruction of justice.

Investigators will also want to know more about why Mr Bannon branded a meeting between key campaign figures – including Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr and Paul Manafort – with a Russian lawyer as “treasonous”, according to a controversial new book by journalist Michael Wolff.