Opinion writer

CNN reported Wednesday night:

Steve Bannon has struck a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and will be interviewed by prosecutors instead of testifying before the grand jury, two people familiar with the process told CNN. He is expected to cooperate with the special counsel, the sources said.

The sources did not say when the interview will take place or if the subpoena would be withdrawn.This follows a stormy session with the House Intelligence Committee during which Bannon reportedly had instructions from the White House not to talk about a broad array of information regarding the transition and his time in the administration. (Frankly, do we care? The House Intelligence Committee investigation is hardly rigorous and seems designed to defend the president and smear the FBI.)

Several things are noteworthy here.

Although Bannon was thrust back into the spotlight because of the Michael Wolff book, his greatest value to the investigation is not what occurred during the campaign, much of it before he arrived in August 2016. Bannon was not on the campaign when George Papadopoulos reportedly made Russian contacts and heard about “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, or during the Republican National Convention when the RNC platform on Ukraine was mysteriously changed to coincide with Russia’s desires (no lethal weapons from the United States). He was not there for the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected lawyer or when WikiLeaks first began releasing the hacked Democratic National Committee emails.

No, Bannon’s greatest value to the Russia investigators may be what he knew after the election. As the president’s senior strategist with full access to the president, he could answer a host of questions, including:

  • What does he know about the transition contacts between Russians and Jared Kushner (at least two we know of,  including one meeting with the chief of a sanctioned Russian bank)? Between Michael Flynn and Russia?
  • What discussion was had about sanctions and a new policy toward Russia during the transition?
  • Why the delay in firing Flynn after Sally Yates informed the White House that Flynn had lied to Vice President Pence about his Russian contacts?
  • What does Bannon know about President Trump’s request to then-FBI Director James B. Comey to let the Flynn probe go?
  • Why did Kushner push for Comey to be fired? Why was Trump so agitated that he felt it necessary to fire Comey?
  • What does Bannon know about drafting the statement to explain the June 9, 2016, meeting?
  • Were any policy initiatives after the inauguration undertaken because of prior conversations/contacts during the campaign or election?
  • What did Bannon know about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe and about efforts to stop that from happening?

Bannon, according to Wolff’s book, also suggested Trump was actually worried about investigators finding out about alleged financial improprieties. “This is all about money laundering,” Bannon supposedly told Wolff. “Their path to [expletive] Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner.” He added, “It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner stuff.” And that raises even more questions:

  • Who, if anyone, expressed concern about Trump’s finances?
  • Was he referring to the timely loan from Deutsche Bank to Kushner just before the election?
  • Who was allegedly involved in “money laundering”? Did this go back to the 1990s, when many U.S. banks cut off Trump? Does it concern Russian oligarchs who purchased properties?
  • Was Trump lying when he said he had no deals in Russia?

In front of the special counsel, Bannon likely will not be able to assert executive privilege (otherwise he gets dragged before the grand jury). As the first person in Trump’s inner circle to be questioned by Mueller, Bannon will serve as a guide for the special counsel as he pursues the case. Even if Bannon does not possess a wealth of information, he may know critical tidbits or point Mueller toward those who do have firsthand knowledge, say, of Trump’s finances. Whether Bannon sheds light on the Trump team’s inexplicable efforts to conceal the extent of Russian connections during the campaign and transition, or on the Trump family finances, remains to be seen. Trump, in any event, may come to regret taking away Bannon’s job and then his post-White House livelihood.