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Ex-strategist Steve Bannon refuses questions about working for president Trump

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon, left, leaves a House Intelligence Committee meeting where he was interviewed behind closed doors on Capitol Hill PICTURE: Jacquelyn Martin
Tom LoBianco

FORMER White House chief strategist Steve Bannon refused to answer a broad array of queries from the House Intelligence Committee about his time working for president Donald Trump on Tuesday, provoking a subpoena from the panel's Republican chairman.

The development brought to the forefront questions about White House efforts to control what the former adviser tells Congress about his time in Mr Trump's inner circle and whether Republicans on Capitol Hill would force the issue in light of the newly issued subpoena from the Republican-controlled panel.

The congressional subpoena came the same day The New York Times reported that Mr Bannon – a former far-right media executive and recently scorned political adversary of the president's – has been subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller to testify before a federal grand jury.

With the issuing of Mr Mueller's subpoena, Mr Bannon became the highest-ranking person who served in the Trump White House to be called before a grand jury as part of the special counsel's investigation.

Committee members grilled Mr Bannon as part of their investigation into Russian election inference, and also wanted answers from him about Mr Trump's thinking when he fired FBI Director James Comey.

But Mr Bannon refused to answer questions about that crucial period, prompting the committee's chairman, Devin Nunes of California, to issue the subpoena.

Late on Tuesday, Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said Mr Bannon's refusal to answer those questions came at the instruction of the White House.

"This was effectively a gag order by the White House," Mr Schiff said shortly after Bannon's interview concluded. He said the committee plans to call Mr Bannon back for a second interview.

A spokeswoman for Mr Bannon did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

At the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "no one" had encouraged Mr Bannon not to be transparent during questioning but there's a "process of what that looks like".

"As with all congressional inquiries touching upon the White House, Congress must consult with the White House prior to obtaining confidential material. This is part of a judicially recognised process that goes back decades," Ms Sanders told reporters.

A White House official said the president did not seek to formally exert executive privilege over Mr Bannon – a move that would have barred him from answering certain questions.

The official said the administration believes it does not have to invoke the privilege to keep Mr Bannon from answering questions about his time in the White House.

The focus on Mr Bannon follows his spectacular fall from power after being quoted in a book saying that he sees the president's son and others as engaging in "treasonous" behaviour for taking a meeting with Russians during the 2016 campaign.

In Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury, Mr Bannon accuses Donald Trump Junior, Jared Kushner and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort of essentially betraying the nation by meeting with a group of Russian lawyers and lobbyists who they believed were ready to offer "dirt" on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

More recently, Bannon has said he was not referring to Trump Jr but rather to Manafort. Wolff stands by his account.

After the book's release, Mr Trump quickly disavowed "Sloppy Steve Bannon" and argued extensively there was no evidence of collusion between his presidential campaign and operatives tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Bannon apologised a few days later but was stripped of his job leading the pro-Trump news site Breitbart News.

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