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Trump Ordered Bannon to Limit Testimony

The president relied on a key legal advisor, but his advice could have a downside

U.S. President Donald Trump and former advisor Steve Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff at the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and former advisor Steve Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff at the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump personally made the decision to curtail the testimony of former chief White House political strategist Steve Bannon before the House Intelligence Committee, according to two people with firsthand knowledge of the matter.

Trump acted to limit Bannon’s testimony based on legal advice provided by Uttam Dhillon, a deputy White House counsel, who concluded that the administration might have legitimate executive privilege claims to restrict testimony by Bannon and other current and former aides to the president, according to these same sources.

But Dhillon has also concluded that Bannon and other current and former Trump administration officials do not have legitimate claims to executive privilege when it comes to providing information or testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller, according to the sources. Mueller is investigating whether anyone associated with Trump colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Dhillon’s private and previously unreported legal advice to Trump could ultimately go against the president’s interest, however, by making it increasingly difficult for any administration official — or even a member of the president’s family who advises Trump — to refuse to provide information to Mueller.

Dhillon’s advice might prove to be a “Pyrrhic victory,” one senior administration official told Foreign Policy.

While the president might be able to “poke the Congress in the eye,” the same legal rationale undercuts any effort to restrict the special counsel’s right to interview current or former Trump aides, the official said.

Bannon infuriated both Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee by refusing to answer questions this week regarding his role in the presidential transition and later as a White House advisor. Repeatedly during Bannon’s executive session testimony, he and his attorney took numerous breaks to confer via phone with the White House counsel’s office as to what questions he should answer and which ones he would not.

“We encourage the committees to work with us to find the appropriate accommodation in order to ensure Congress obtains all the information that they’re looking for,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Bannon has reportedly agreed to be interviewed by Mueller after having been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury. In exchange for voluntarily cooperating with prosecutors and FBI agents working for the special counsel, Bannon has apparently been able to avoid testifying before a grand jury — though he could be called upon later to do so.

Because Bannon refused to answer the House Intelligence Committee’s questions on Tuesday, the committee served him with a subpoena during a break in the proceedings.

Dhillon, who has provided legal advice about executive privilege to Trump, is both a deputy counsel and deputy assistant to the president. As a key aide to White House counsel Donald McGahn, Dhillon has played an increasing role in advising the president and others on his legal team about the Mueller investigation and related issues.

A former Justice Department official, Dhillon worked during the George W. Bush administration for now-fired FBI Director James Comey, who was deputy attorney general at the time. Dhillon later served as a senior Department of Homeland Security official.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Murray Waas has worked as an investigations editor for Vice, an investigative reporter for Reuters, and a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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