“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.
Bannon’s efforts, according to news reports at the time and detailed in Wolff’s Fire and Fury, were designed to keep the president and the White House staff insulated from the grind of an investigation that, Bannon believed, would otherwise be an intolerable drain on the political capital of the administration. But Bannon’s war room died in its infancy, and within days of Mueller’s appointment it became clear that the president had no intention of trying to stay above the fray. Bannon cringed as Trump made a series of critical missteps—including his declaration on national television, in an NBC interview with Lester Holt, that he fired Comey because of “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.” That concern deepened as Trump got personally involved in dictating what turned out to be a false cover story about the reasons for the participation of Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner in the now-infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a group of Russians—which Bannon called, according to Wolff, “treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit.”
Bannon, according to Wolff, ridiculed the White House’s own clumsy efforts to defend itself against Mueller’s juggernaut. “They’re sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five.”
Meanwhile, Bannon’s inside knowledge of how the White House responded to the investigation could be invaluable to Mueller, not least as the special counsel assembles what could be charges that the president and his team have obstructed justice.
As recounted in Fire and Fury in Bannon’s inimitable, colorful language, it’s clear that Trump’s former campaign manager and chief strategist believes that top aides are—well, let Bannon himself describe it: “Hope Hicks is so fucked she doesn’t even know it. They are going to lay her out. They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV. Michael Cohen, cracked like an egg.” Hicks, perhaps Trump’s closest confidante, is currently the White House communications director, and Cohen is Trump’s longtime, New York–based lawyer and consigliere.
Bannon reserved his most devastating commentary for Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. In May, immediately after Comey was fired, Bannon said presciently, according to Wolff, “As the Russia story unfolds…keep your eye on Kushner.” Why? It’s all about the money. “You realize where this is going,” he said last July. “This is all about money laundering.… It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They’re going to go right through that.” Added Bannon, “You’ve got the LeBron James of money laundering investigations on you, Jarvanka.”
Indeed, Kushner may very well be vulnerable to a money-laundering inquiry. As The Nation reported last August (“What Did Trump and Kushner Know About Russian Money Laundering, and When Did They Know It?”), there’s a potentially incriminating link between the Trump Tower meeting involving Kushner and a Russian firm enmeshed in a famous money-laundering scandal. The company, Prevezon, was charged with laundering fraudulently obtained funds through US real-estate investments, according to a 2013 civil-forfeiture complaint filed by then–US Attorney Preet Bharara. According to that charge, Prevezon helped launder part of $230 million, through Cyprus, that was looted from a company called the Hermitage Fund, a private hedge fund owned by William Browder.
The lawyer who represents Prevezon is none other than Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian government–linked attorney who led the Russian delegation at the June 9, 2016, session with Kushner and the Trump campaign team. One of Prevezon’s key partners is a billionaire named Lev Leviev. In 2015, Jared Kushner’s company engaged in a complex real-estate deal with Leviev to purchase part of a Times Square office building—a deal whose mortgage was underwritten by a loan from Germany’s Deutsche Bank. Just before Christmas, The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn had subpoenaed records from Deutsche Bank tied to transactions with the Kushner Companies.
According to Fire and Fury, Kushner and Ivanka Trump—along with Charlie Kushner, Jared’s father and the Kushner Co. patriarch—were terrified of the FBI and Mueller from the very start of the inquiry. Mueller will be extremely interested if Bannon can provide details as to why, what they said internally, and how they responded (i.e., did they urge the president to obstruct justice, to fire Comey, to engage in a cover-up?).
Bannon ridiculed the president’s own naïve belief that he could prevent Mueller from going after the president’s finances and those of his family members. Over that Chinese takeout at his Alexandria home, Bannon expressed incredulity that Trump would tell The New York Times in an interview that if Mueller examined Trump’s money trail it would cross the president’s “red line.” Wrote Wolff: “‘Ehhh … ehhh … ehhh!’ screeched Bannon, making the sound of an emergency alarm. ‘Don’t look here! Let’s tell a prosecutor what not to look at!’” When Bannon brought this up with Trump, the president said, “That’s not their mandate.” Bannon’s response: “Seriously, dude?”
By all accounts, Bannon is willing to tell both Mueller and congressional committees what he knows. During his appearance before the HPSCI on Tuesday, which focused on the transition between Obama and Trump and on Bannon’s White House service, the White House apparently blocked Bannon from giving answers, claiming executive privilege. But it’s unlikely the HPSCI will allow the White House to get away with that for long; Bannon will be back soon for another round. Meanwhile, executive privilege won’t be allowed when Bannon testifies before the grand jury, which he’ll have to do while his lawyers wait outside the room. And Bannon himself is well aware that, as shown by the precedents of Watergate and Whitewater, executive privilege has a very limited application. According to Fire and Fury, Bannon laughingly mimicked White House officials who believed that dodge would work. “‘We’ve got executive privilege!’ There’s no executive privilege! We proved that in Watergate.”