Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, was subpoenaed last week by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to testify before a grand jury as part of the investigation into possible links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.
The move marked the first time Mr. Mueller is known to have used a grand jury subpoena to seek information from a member of Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The special counsel’s office has used subpoenas before to seek information on Mr. Trump’s associates and their possible ties to Russia or other foreign governments.
The subpoena could be a negotiating tactic. Mr. Mueller is likely to allow Mr. Bannon to forgo the grand jury appearance if he agrees to instead be questioned by investigators in the less formal setting of the special counsel’s offices in Washington, according to the person, who would not be named discussing the case. But it was not clear why Mr. Mueller treated Mr. Bannon differently than the dozen administration officials who were interviewed in the final months of last year and were never served with a subpoena.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bannon testified behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Mr. Mueller issued the subpoena after Mr. Bannon was quoted in a new book criticizing Mr. Trump, saying that Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting with Russians was “treasonous” and predicting that the special counsel investigation would ultimately center on money laundering.
After excerpts from the book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” were published this month, Mr. Trump derided Mr. Bannon publicly and threatened to sue him for defamation. Mr. Bannon was soon ousted as the executive chairman of the hard-right website Breitbart News.
Some legal experts said the subpoena could be a sign that the investigation was intensifying, while others said it may simply have been a negotiating tactic to persuade Mr. Bannon to cooperate with the investigation. The experts also said it could be a signal to Mr. Bannon, who has tried to publicly patch up his falling-out with the president, that despite Mr. Trump’s legal threats, Mr. Bannon must be completely forthcoming with investigators.
Prosecutors generally prefer to interview witnesses before a grand jury when they believe they have information that the witnesses do not know or when they think they might catch the witnesses in a lie. It is much easier for a witness to stop the questioning or sidestep questions in an interview than during grand jury testimony, which is transcribed, and witnesses are required to answer every question.
“By forcing someone to testify through a subpoena, you are providing the witness with cover because they can say, ‘I had no choice — I had to go in and testify about everything I knew,’” said Solomon L. Wisenberg, a prosecutor for the independent counsel that investigated Bill Clinton when he was president.
Significant grand jury activity may undermine the case that White House officials have made for months: that they believe the inquiry is coming to an end and are convinced that the president will be cleared. Mr. Mueller has told Mr. Trump’s lawyers that he will probably want to question the president before the investigation concludes, but no interview has been scheduled.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Michael S. Schmidt