“I know no Russians,” said Steve Bannon. “I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. I’m not being a witness. I’m not hiring a lawyer. It’s not going to be my ass…on national TV answering questions.” That’s an on-the-record quote from last July, spoken during a takeout Chinese dinner at Bannon’s Alexandria, Virginia, apartment—nicknamed “the safe house”—as cited in Michael Wolff’s bestseller, Fire and Fury.
As of today, however, at least several of those statements are no longer operative: Bannon is indeed a witness, and he’s hired a lawyer—William Burck, who also represents Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, and Don McGahn, the White House chief counsel. And soon enough, it could in fact be his ass on TV answering questions. Bannon has been subpoenaed by Robert Mueller, the Russiagate special counsel, to answer questions—under oath, of course—in front of a grand jury. And after refusing to answer many questions during his January 16 interview with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Bannon received a subpoena from HPSCI to appear again.
So what does it mean that Bannon—who was at the very heart of the Trump team from August 2016 until he resigned from the White House in August 2017—is now talking to Mueller? Now that he’s famously fallen out with Trump, will he protect the president, or will he provide damaging and potentially devastating testimony? Will he try to get revenge on Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the duo that Bannon calls “Jarvanka”? (Wolff’s book spells it that way, though the more common rendering is “Javanka.”) According to Wolff’s book, Bannon believes that several of those closest to Trump—including Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, and Hope Hicks, among others—are exceedingly vulnerable to Mueller’s inquiry. No doubt Mueller will ask, Why do you think so?
Since the Trump-Russia story emerged, Bannon has sought to keep it at arm’s length. Like Trump, Bannon has been a skeptic when it comes to Russiagate, insisting that neither Trump nor his campaign engaged in collusion with Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign. Unlike Trump, however, throughout 2017 Bannon had a clear-eyed view of the power of the Justice Department and the FBI once an investigation got under way. He opposed the firing of FBI Director James Comey last May, an event that triggered the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, calling it one of the worst mistakes in political history. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, we would not have a special counsel,” Bannon told CBS’s 60 Minutes in September. “We would not have the Mueller investigation. We would not have the Mueller investigation and the breadth that clearly Mr. Mueller is going for.”
And, once Mueller was appointed, Bannon—then serving as the White House’s “chief strategist”—studied the lessons of Bill Clinton’s defense against Ken Starr, the Whitewater special prosecutor whose years-long inquiry led to the impeachment of Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the sexual-harassment suit filed by Paula Jones. Bannon sought to assemble a war room, putting together a team that included a seasoned PR strategist, outside lawyers, and veteran hardball operatives such as David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski.