Like an Ent of the woodlands hauling its trunked legs from the rooty firmness of the soil, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department finally bestirred itself on Friday and rose against the castled walls of the previous presidential administration. After weeks of bated silence, Garland secured two charges of contempt of Congress against former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who had saucily refused to comply with subpoenas for testimony and documents.
“Since my first day in office,” noted Garland in a Friday statement, “I have promised Justice Department employees that together we would show the American people by word and deed that the department adheres to the rule of law, follows the facts and the law and pursues equal justice under the law. Today’s charges reflect the department’s steadfast commitment to these principles.”
Fine words, but not the actual message. The actual message telegraphed by the deeds and words of the attorney general was far simpler: Mark Meadows? Yes, you’ll be next. Earlier that same Friday, former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows likewise blew off subpoenas for testimony and document production produced by the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack. Scant hours later, the Bannon indictments were announced, and the elevator in Meadows’s stomach probably went all the way down to the basement.
The fate of these subpoenas now rests with the courts, which will have to decide if Trump’s all-encompassing legal theory on executive privilege has any bearing in reality or the law. However that turns out, the Justice Department laid down an unmistakable marker for any other potential witnesses wishing to make nice with Trump by defying congress: Be prepared to trade subpoena compliance for legal charges.
“Mr. Meadows’s actions today — choosing to defy the law — will force the Select Committee to consider pursuing contempt or other proceedings to enforce the subpoena,” said committee chair Bennie Thompson and committee member Rep. Cheney in a joint Friday statement. “If his defiance persists and that process moves ahead, the record will reveal the wide range of matters the Select Committee wished to discuss with Mr. Meadows until his decision to hide behind the former President’s spurious claims of privilege.”
On Monday, Bannon surrendered to federal authorities and was charged with two counts of contempt. “On the way into the FBI’s Washington Field Office to turn himself in,” reports ABC News, “Bannon cut a promo on one of his social media accounts for his radio show, advising his supporters to not ‘take their eye off the ball.’”
Bannon and Meadows are but the first on the select committee’s long list. “This week the committee released 16 new subpoenas over two days,” reports The Hill, “encircling Meadows by demanding depositions from a number of those he worked closest with at the White House…. The tension with Meadows is coming to a head as the committee seems determined to trace his involvement in Trump’s election efforts at the Department of Justice; in Georgia where Trump pressured the secretary of state there to ‘find’ 11,780 more votes; and in the planning of rallies just before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.”
These latest developments come as new revelations about the Trump administration’s involvement in the 1/6 Capitol attack continue to emerge. On Sunday, ABC News reported on the existence of yet another memo, written by another Trump lawyer, offering another detailed roadmap for how to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. The lawyer in question is former Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, and the memo she penned was emailed by Meadows to the top aide of then-Vice President Mike Pence scant days before the insurrection. According to ABC News:
Ellis, in the memo, outlined a multi-step strategy: On Jan. 6, the day Congress was to certify the 2020 election results, Pence was to send back the electoral votes from six battleground states that Trump falsely claimed he had won. The memo said that Pence would give the states a deadline of “7pm eastern standard time on January 15th” to send back a new set of votes, according to [author Jonathan] Karl. Then, Ellis wrote, if any state legislature missed that deadline, “no electoral votes can be opened and counted from that state.”
Such a scenario would leave neither Biden nor Trump with a majority of votes, Ellis wrote, which would mean “Congress shall vote by state delegation” — which, Ellis said, would in turn lead to Trump being declared the winner due to Republicans controlling the majority of state delegations with 26.
This Ellis memo, in combination with the now-infamous Eastman memo, serves to underscore the enormous pressure that was brought to bear on Pence. The vice president was the fulcrum upon which the entire plot depended; without his deliberate interference in the vote certification happening the day of the attack, Trump’s designs could go nowhere. Trump leaned hard on Pence to acquiesce, but in the end, and after some stern advice from fellow former Indiana senator and Vice President Dan Quayle, Pence stayed the constitutional course, and was nearly murdered for it by an infuriated Trumpian horde.
In the meantime, and serving as further proof of the vise grip Trump holds on the Republican Party, a predictable clot of GOP officeholders has risen in defense of Bannon. They do not declare his innocence, or try to buttress the gossamer privilege claims he clings to. No, they simply threatened the government with further chaos — “they will go after Biden’s aides for unspecified reasons if they take back the House majority in next year’s midterm elections,” according to The Washington Post — if their man is not let go.
“Power in Washington shifts slowly, but when it shifts, it shifts with great force,” Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce wrote after the events of last Friday. “You can feel it moving now, and when the former president looks out the window at Mar-a-Lago, he’ll notice that, out on a lake, the ducks are suddenly all in a row.”
We shall see. At long last, the Ents of the Justice Department are on the march. Whether they’re headed toward a wood-chipper or not remains to be determined.