Steve Bannon is set to become the subject of a special counsel probe as part of a Republican investigation, making the former Trump aide a juicy target for Democrats as they focus on the possible influence of Russia in the 2016 election. That’s partly because Bannon, a former executive at Breitbart News and the CEO of the Trump presidential campaign, is considered the chief architect of the president’s campaign strategy. But the charge of witness tampering and obstruction of justice are a bigger story, and could have real consequences. Here are some of the big winners and losers of Thursday’s news.
In his first statement since the indictment was announced, Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised FBI special counsel Robert Mueller for “his thorough and professional work.” The news is good news for Republicans, who are hopeful that the continued scrutiny of Russiagate will dampen down Democratic enthusiasm in 2018 midterm elections. But it also raises questions about the potency of the issue. It has been over two years since Hillary Clinton lost, while Trump and his allies have continued to use it as a stump speech prop. The question remains whether Trump and Republicans can keep using it as a diversionary tactic to prevent the investigations from getting too intense and hampering their efforts.
Bannon is once again a hot target for Democrats. He is alleged to have tried to get two political consultants to derail an investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and to give unfair advantages to a presidential candidate’s campaign in the future. Bannon’s affiliation with a billionaire foreign ally – he’s close to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska – certainly helped the investigation get underway. But it is his own political incentives and ambitions, and his history of working in a way that presents a threat to the American political system that could ultimately have a bigger impact on US politics.
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Some have been hoping that the Mueller investigation would find evidence to help criminalize special interest-driven political messaging, but that could now change. Before the announcement, Trump suggested that Bannon might be “just a lobbyist” and said he had “a very good relationship with him.” Following the charges, the president slammed Bannon as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika,” calling him “wacky” and “not smart.” The implication is that Bannon has been infiltrating the White House as a lobbyist and that he has manipulated and may still be manipulating people. The indictment comes as a blow to Republican efforts to restrict and ban lobbying, which are headed to Congress.
The Senate intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat put out a statement shortly after the news of the Mueller indictment was announced. He urged the leaders of Congress’s intelligence committees to “pursue a wide-ranging and highly critical investigation, focused on what Russia actually did during the 2016 election, not whether Hillary Clinton might have done a better job.”
The world, of course, is already wary of the power of the presidency. US congressional investigations may only strengthen international suspicions. Russian oligarchs have already warned of the implications of special counsel investigations. And the US economic dominance that Washington has taken pride in must now be called into question.
For over two years, the president has continued to brush off calls to take political responsibility for Russian interference. And he has defended Russia’s actions, even attacking US intelligence agencies for leaking transcripts of a meeting in which he allegedly tried to influence US politics. If the special counsel investigation continues, there’s no way to tell whether he’ll change his mind and adopt an “us versus them” political posture. In that case, Putin could hope to be further vindicated of his actions and end up looking stronger.