Ex-Trump aide Bannon to speak to prosecutors in Russia probe

Washington - Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has agreed to be interviewed by prosecutors investigating alleged Russian ties to President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, according to US media reports Wednesday.

Bannon was subpoenaed last week by special counsel Robert Mueller but has agreed to cooperate and will be allowed to submit to an an interview with investigators rather than formal grand jury testimony, The New York Times and other media reported, citing one or more people familiar with the matter.
On Tuesday, Bannon, who was chief executive of Trump's 2016 general election campaign, had refused to answer most questions during a close hearing in the House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee, according to lawmakers.
Bannon recently had a public rift with Trump.
Despite the fractured relationship, Bannon's lawyer asserted in the Intelligence Committee that the White House had instructed him not to answer questions about his time working in the post-election transition or in the Trump administration.
The committee immediately issued a subpoena to compel sworn testimony from Bannon, who again cited executive privilege, a legal right for the president to keep certain deliberations secret.
"There is no legal basis in which the White House can instruct witnesses like Steve Bannon to refuse broad categories of questions before our committee," California Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking opposition Democrat on the panel, tweeted Wednesday. "We must insist on answers."
Under the US constitutional separation of powers, the oft-litigated US executive privilege is meant to prevent incursions on presidential power from the legislative and judicial branches.
Schiff had told reporters after the closed meeting that Bannon's refusal to answer questions "was effectively a gag order by the White House preventing this witness from answering almost any question concerning his time in the transition or the administration, and many questions even after he left the administration."
Bannon's lawyer apparently conferred with the White House after the subpoena was issued, Schiff said in a Washington Post video recorded on Capitol Hill.
In the Senate, dissident Republican Jeff Flake on Wednesday condemned Trump's use of "hoax" to describe investigations of Russian election meddling, calling the term the "most vexing untruth of all" by the president.
Flake, one of Trump's most consistent critics within the conservative Republican Party, said in the US Senate that "to call the Russian matter a hoax, as the president has done so many times, is a falsehood."
"We know the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real," said Flake, who is not seeking re-election in November.
He called it essential to "get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads."
Despite US intelligence reports of continued Russian efforts, Trump has held no cabinet-level meetings on defending US sovereignty, Flake charged.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later accused Flake of "looking for some attention" and criticizing Trump to distract from his own "terrible poll numbers."
Sanders defended the claim of executive privilege for Bannon's congressional testimony, saying legal "precedent" was guiding White House lawyers.
"This White House is following the same practice that many White Houses before us have," she said.
Asked about the subpoena of Bannon, Sanders said that the White House has spent Trump's first year in office coping with "this hoax," as she labeled the investigation, and would continue to cooperate with Mueller's probe.
"As we've said, regardless of who it is, we're going to be fully cooperative with the special counsel and encourage everybody involved in the process to be fully cooperative," she said.
Bannon was quoted extensively in a book published this month that portrays Trump as uninformed and unfit for office, drawing White House ire.
He stepped down last week as executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News. A former investment banker and military officer, Bannon had headed Breitbart before joining the campaign three months before Trump's surprise victory in November 2016.
He left the White House in August, but remained in contact with the president until this month, when the publication of "Fire and Fury: Inside Donald Trump's White House" prompted his former boss to tweet that Bannon had "not only lost his job, he lost his mind."
Author Michael Wolff quoted Bannon speculating that a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russian government-connected individuals and campaign officials - including Trump's son and son-in-law - was "treasonous."


Thursday, January 18th 2018
By Frank Fuhrig, dpa

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