“The claim of executive privilege is really frivolous,” then-Republican Arlen Specter said of Clinton in 1998, while Democrat Bob Torricelli replied, “Executive privilege has been used by every president since Thomas Jefferson, or at least many of them, on occasion.” Nearly a decade later, as Bush tried to impede an inquiry into the firing of U.S. attorneys, Democrat Patrick Leahy said the White House was engaging in “Nixonian stonewalling,” but Republican John Cornyn called it “basically a political witch hunt.”
The bipartisan anger at Bannon on Tuesday is not only an exception to this historical pattern—it’s an exception to how the current congressional investigations into Russia and the election have gone. The House Intelligence Committee in particular has been the setting for much partisan sniping; GOP Chair Devin Nunes eventually stepped aside from that probe after a bizarre escapade in which the White House was apparently feeding him claims of improper behavior by Obama administration officials, though none of those claims have produced any proof. Despite stepping aside in favor of Conaway, members say Nunes has continued to interfere with the probe.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has been only slightly less acrimonious. Earlier this month, two senior Republicans asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Christopher Steele, author of the Trump dossier, lied to federal agents, in what Democrats described as naked political protection of the president. The following week, ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein released the transcript of an interview with Fusion GPS principal Glenn Simpson, setting off another war of words.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has, by contrast, been a model of functionality, and it has produced a large amount of interesting information about the role of social media in Russian interference, but has not produced as many public revelations about Trump campaign collusion.
When these panels are not kneecapped by partisan sniping, they’re also dealing with obstacles offered by the White House, from the Nunes escapade to the question of Bannon and executive privilege.
For all of the attention, it’s unclear what Bannon has in the way of relevant information. He joined the Trump campaign after the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between several Russians and Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner. According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, he was not present when the president dictated a misleading statement about that meeting. Bannon was also reportedly not present when Trump decided to fire FBI Director James Comey, only learning of the decision once it was made. The New York Times reports that if Bannon were a target for Mueller, he would not likely have been subpoenaed.
In Wolff’s book, Bannon makes several noteworthy statements. He calls the Trump Tower meeting “unpatriotic” and “treasonous,” and speculates that those in the meeting would have brought the Russians to visit Trump. He also suggests that Kushner and Trump Jr. are ripe for prosecution. But these statements are similar to widely circulating speculation, and it appears Bannon is offering his own speculation. If he has any actual evidence to back them up, he has not offered it publicly.