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Russiagate crisis: Mueller counterattacks; subpoenas Bannon

Decision to subpoena Bannon makes little sense except in terms of partisan politics

That Special Counsel Robert Mueller is becoming rattled because of the growing criticism of his investigation by Republicans in Congress and because of the legal action Paul Manafort has recently brought against him, is strongly suggested by his frankly very strange decision not just to subpoena Steve Bannon but to subpoena Steve Bannon to give evidence before a Grand Jury.

It is difficult to understand the logic of this step if Mueller is carrying out a serious investigation.

No one up to now has suggested that Bannon was involved in the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Bannon’s name does not appear in the Trump Dossier.  He does not seem to have been placed under surveillance as a result of any FISA warrants.  He does not seem to have been involved in the failed diplomatic outreach to the Russians carried out by Michael Flynn during the transition period.

Given that this is so, it is not obvious why Bannon is being asked questions at all, much less why he is being asked to answer those questions before a Grand Jury.

There is some speculation that the subpoena has been served in that way as a tactic to try to force Bannon to answer questions voluntarily in Mueller’s office.  However that would imply that there was some reason to doubt that he would agree to be interviewed by Mueller, of which there is no evidence and which seems on the face of it extremely unlikely.

Even the New York Times, which was the first to report the story, seems baffled and struggles to come up with an explanation

The subpoena could be a negotiating tactic. Mr. Mueller is likely to allow Mr. Bannon to forgo the grand jury appearance if he agrees to instead be questioned by investigators in the less formal setting of the special counsel’s offices about ties between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia and about the president’s conduct in office, according to the person, who would not be named discussing the case. But it was not clear why Mr. Mueller treated Mr. Bannon differently than the dozen administration officials who were interviewed in the final months of last year and were never served with a subpoena.

The subpoena is a sign that Mr. Bannon is not personally the focus of the investigation. Justice Department rules allow prosecutors to subpoena the targets of investigations only in rare circumstances…..

Some legal experts said the subpoena could be a sign that the investigation was intensifying, while others said it may simply have been a negotiating tactic to persuade Mr. Bannon to cooperate with the investigation. The experts also said it could be a signal to Mr. Bannon, who has tried to publicly patch up his falling-out with the president, that despite Mr. Trump’s legal threats, Mr. Bannon must be completely forthcoming with investigators…..

Mr. Bannon has limited firsthand knowledge about two key issues within Mr. Mueller’s purview — the president’s firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, a decision made without Mr. Bannon present, and the drafting of a misleading statement about the subject of the June 2016 meeting with Russians, in which they promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

All this sounds incredibly nebulous, and does not really explain why Bannon is being asked to answer questions before a Grand Jury, or indeed why he is being asked questions at all.

There have been suggestions that Bannon is being called to answer questions because the fiancee of George Papadopoulos has said that Papadopoulos informed him of his contacts with the Russians.

However there was nothing to suggest collusion in Papadopoulos’s contacts with the Russians – if there had been his indictment would undoubtedly have said so – and Papadopoulos is known to have discussed his contacts with the Russians with several other people in the Trump campaign, none of whom have been subpoenaed to appear and answer questions before a Grand Jury as Bannon has just been.

It is overwhelmingly likely that the reason why Bannon is being subpoenaed to appear and answer questions before a Grand Jury is so that he can explain his much reported (indeed over-reported) comments that the meeting between Donald Trump Junior and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was “treasonous”.  That at least seems to be the explanation the New York Times favours.

In “Fire and Fury,” Mr. Bannon was quoted by the author, Michael Wolff, as suggesting that Donald Trump Jr.; the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner; and Paul Manafort, his campaign chairman at the time, were “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for attending the meeting with Russians at Trump Tower. Mr. Bannon said that he believed there was “zero” chance that the younger Mr. Trump did not take them to meet his father, who has said he knew nothing about the meeting.

“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor — with no lawyers,” Mr. Bannon said in the book.

If so then that is desperate.  Bannon is not a lawyer and is no expert in what is “treasonous” and what is not.

Besides to believe that Bannon really thinks the meeting with Veselnitskaya was “treasonous” is to invest far too much meeting into his words.  Here is what I have previously said about the true meaning behind Bannon’s words about this meeting, which I discussed in my recent review of Michael Wolff’s book

…….Bannon does not really believe that Donald Trump Junior, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort were engaging in treason when they met Veselnitskaya.  Rather what Bannon is saying is that by meeting Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower without lawyers present and without first tipping off the FBI they were exposing themselves to that claim.

In other words Bannon is saying that Donald Trump Junior, Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner are stupid and incompetent (“that’s the brain trust they had”) and cannot be trusted to do anything right by themselves unless Bannon himself is involved (“any information could then be dumped down to Breitbart”).

Instead of being evidence that the meeting with Veselnitskaya was “treasonous”, Bannon’s words are therefore just another example of Bannon’s self-aggrandising and his all-too obvious hostility towards members of Donald Trump’s family.

Bannon’s real view of the Russiagate affair is provided in another passage in the book, which  – of course – has attracted no attention

As for Bannon, who had himself promoted many conspiracies, he dismissed the Russia story in textbook fashion: “It’s just a conspiracy theory”.  And, he added, the Trump team wasn’t capable of conspiring about anything.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that with questions about the Trump Dossier which underpins the whole Russiagate inquiry increasingly being asked, and with the Wall Street Journal once again calling into question the whole propriety of the Russiagate investigation, Mueller felt that he had to take dramatic action to show that his inquiry is still on track by serving a subpoena on Bannon to answer questions before a Grand Jury.

That after all is what Mueller increasingly looks to have done with his indictment against Paul Manafort, which increasingly looks as if it was rushed out in response to an earlier editorial in the Wall Street Journal which said that Mueller should go.

The fact that Bannon is now apparently saying that his “treasonous” comment was intended to refer not to Donald Trump Junior but to Paul Manafort, who has quite obviously become Mueller’s bête noire, makes that even more likely.

If so then the subpoena Mueller has just served on Bannon shows two things: first, that Mueller must be becoming increasingly desperate as his investigation runs on empty, so that he is now seizing on some stray words of Bannon’s quoted in a gossipy book to justify calling him before a Grand Jury; and second, that Mueller is working hand-in-glove with the Democrats, since it is surely not a coincidence that Mueller subpoenaed Bannon the day after Bannon answered questions put to him by the Democrats in the House Intelligence Committee.

The second of course shows what a partisan affair Russiagate has now become.

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