There's an anecdote from Bob Woodward's book "Fear" that I think about with some regularity. In it, Donald Trump is offering advice to a friend who was accused of what Woodward describes as "some bad behavior toward women."
"You've got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women," Trump told his friend, according to Woodward. "If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you're dead. That was a big mistake you made. You didn't come out guns blazing and just challenge them. You showed weakness. You've got to be strong. You've got to be aggressive. You've got to push back hard. You've got to deny anything that's said about you. Never admit."
This, in a nutshell, is how Trump operates. At almost no point during the past six years, as Trump was buffeted by scandal after scandal, did Trump waver from flat, frequent denials that he'd done anything wrong. He saw quickly that rejecting accusations made against him allowed his base to assume that they were not true, even when they obviously were. He attacked those who had admitted to misbehavior, like former senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), while defending those who didn't, like Republican Senate candidate from Alabama Roy Moore. When Democrats retook the House in 2019 and began a series of investigations targeting him and his administration, he refused to comply, stonewalling most requests and prohibiting his staff from offering testimony. When he was impeached in late 2019, one of the charges he faced was that he refused to submit to the House's investigations.
Until Jan. 20 of this year, he had an important ally in this effort. Trump controlled the Justice Department, making it all-but-useless for House investigators to hold balking witnesses in contempt. They tried; it didn't do much.
But then Trump lost. Now, House Democrats not only had the ability to hold people in contempt, they had a way to enforce it. Deny, deny, deny works pretty well until the police show up.
On Friday afternoon, former White House adviser Stephen Bannon was indicted on charges of contempt of Congress. If convicted, he faces a mandatory jail sentence. It's a significant escalation of the effort by the House committee probing the Jan. 6 riot to enforce its authority.
Yet what the indictment makes clear is that Bannon made almost no effort to avoid the charges. At one point, the document delineates the ways in which Bannon could have tried to assert a claim of executive privilege, like turning over requesting documents that clearly didn't meet that standard (if any do) and providing documentation about those he felt did. He could have come to offer his testimony, withholding responses to questions that he felt would cross that boundary. Instead he simply refused — refused, refused, refused — and now will have to turn himself in to law enforcement on Monday.
In other words, Bannon made an unusual choice. He could have tried to find middle ground between what Trump would want (or, quite possibly, what Trump actually recommended) and the authority of Congress. But for Bannon, there was no real debate about which power center posed more risk. It seems that Bannon is much more concerned about crossing Trump than he is crossing the federal government.
There are reasons he would hold this position, certainly. Bannon was pulled into Trump's orbit in 2016 but is now fully intertwined with the former president. Bannon's audience has gone from Breitbart's readership to simply a subset (albeit a large one) of Trump's. Since the 2020 election, he's woven himself more closely into Trump's world, his daily podcast a distillation of the evolving furies of the far-right. He still has Trump's ear.
It's not clear what would have happened had Bannon tried to comply with the Jan. 6 committee, but it is safe to assume that Trump would not have appreciated it. Bannon could likely have survived that. He'd been ejected from Trump's orbit before, after all, but allowed the gravity of shared grievance to slowly draw him back in. But a trial and possible jail stint are apparently preferable for him than risking expulsion. For Bannon, the indictment will likely be a point of pride, proof that he's a true soldier in this world-altering struggle that he's been hyping on his show.
Which brings us to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. He was scheduled to offer testimony before the Jan. 6 committee on Friday but declined to do so. Was he, too, choosing the Trumpian strategy of offering zero help to one's opponents? Was he betting that the worst Trump had to offer was more dire than whatever the feds might do? And, importantly, does he still feel that way, after the Bannon news broke?
The point of holding Bannon in contempt and recommending criminal indictment was, in part, to demonstrate the heft of the government's position. For four years, ignoring Congress incurred little cost. In fact, it earned you appreciation from the boss. But those years are over. Are others with lower profiles similarly going to weigh the government's wrath against the former president's and worry more about the latter?
That this is not an easy question to answer tells us a great deal about the moment and about the movement.