In an opinion piece for Politico, former White House ethics attorneys Norman Eisen, Richard Painter, and Virginia Canter discussed reports that Steve Bannon, former aide to President Donald Trump, is still talking to his old boss, and giving him tips for how to handle Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s Russia probe. Citing a federal statute, they point out that—depending on the nature of these conversations—they could be illegal.
The law in question places restrictions on the kinds of contact that former Executive Branch employees can have with any part of the federal government. Bannon is reportedly giving Trump advice for how to combat Mueller, from cutting funding for the investigation, to bringing on tougher lawyers, to refusing to turn over documents. The statute, 18 USC 207, says that former employees cannot communicate with the government with the intent to influence, if they are doing so on behalf of someone else.
The former White House lawyers don’t point to solid evidence that Bannon is speaking for anyone other than himself, but they say that if he is receiving money from people like the Mercer family, who are long-time Bannon supporters, or even from Breitbart, that could be enough to violate the statute. Again, they do not present evidence that this is the case.
They do present another argument for possible illegality: obstruction of justice. The idea here is that if Bannon is trying to persuade Trump to take actions to hinder Mueller’s investigation with the intent to cover up a crime, that could qualify as obstruction. Of course, this is the same argument for obstruction that can be made against Trump’s firing of James Comey, and it rests on the same big “if.” If there was a crime that was being covered up, then it might be obstruction. Without evidence of an underlying illegal act, it’s hard to say that someone was covering it up.
Similarly, Eisen, Painter, and Canter say that Bannon could be guilty of witness tampering … depending on what was said.
“If the conversation turned to either of their testimony about the Russia investigation and how to shape it, that would open the question of witness tampering,” they write, admitting that “We do not know whether any of this has occurred.”
With Mueller’s investigation already resulting in multiple arrests and one conviction, time will tell whether there is enough evidence to support any of these arguments.
[Image via MSNBC screengrab]