Image copyright AP Image caption Former Trump aide Bannon was ousted from the White House in August 2017
Lawyers for the former chief strategist to Donald Trump have questioned whether his client is immune from prosecution, the New York Times has reported.
Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating whether Steve Bannon, who resigned from the White House in August, helped engineer efforts to rig the 2016 election.
Mr Trump has dismissed Mr Bannon as “a loser” who has “nothing to do” but is preparing for battle, the Times quoted its sources as saying.
Mr Trump’s legal team has repeatedly denied any knowledge of any collusion with Russia.
They say they do not believe Mr Bannon will cooperate with Mr Mueller’s investigation, and he has asked the Department of Justice (DoJ) to limit his prosecution.
In a letter to the DoJ, Mr Bannon’s lawyers asked that Mr Mueller decide in a “case-by-case basis” whether to investigate the business dealings of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who were also senior Trump campaign officials.
They argued that their client should be protected from prosecution, because of an immunity agreement Mr Trump signed at the time of his appointment as White House chief of staff in July.
But Mr Mueller has told his lawyers that he believes Mr Bannon is “unwilling and unable to fulfil his legal obligations”.
The Times reported that Mr Mueller’s investigators believe that Mr Bannon helped orchestrate payments to a Russian lawyer ahead of the 2016 election in order to help Mr Trump’s White House run, and then obstructed justice in the process of trying to uncover them.
It said that federal prosecutors believe Mr Bannon may have planted damaging information about former Trump administration official Michael Flynn – who was forced to resign from the National Security Council in February 2017 for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
It said that once Mr Trump was elected, Mr Bannon instructed his associates to “use whatever means necessary to intervene to help the Trump candidacy” – and that he grew alarmed after Mr Trump fired James Comey, then director of the FBI, as FBI head in May 2017.
“We looked the President in the eye and told him we would never let him become president. We were right,” Mr Bannon reportedly said at a closed-door event in October.
The Times quoted unnamed investigators as describing Mr Bannon as “dead wrong” and “super ambitious” and a “baseless complainant”.
But his lawyers told The New York Times on Thursday that they had asked the Department of Justice to allow their client to see the allegations against him.
Their lawyers said they believed Mr Bannon was entitled to a remedy after “being wrongfully and misleadingly maligned” and “further damaged” by reports that he had given “made-up information”.
The paper reported that Mr Bannon’s lawyers also said that when the special counsel was appointed, the FBI interviewed Mr Bannon in August 2017, although he was “only briefly and informally” part of the inquiry.
The criminal investigation is looking into potential collusion between Mr Trump’s team and Russia during the 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency.
In May 2017, the president dismissed Mr Comey, whom he was pushing to slow the investigation into the alleged Russia contacts, saying that Mr Comey’s decision to announce that the FBI had reopened its probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails after it had closed it three months earlier showed “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Former Trump adviser Paul Manafort was named in the probe
The New York Times quoted an unnamed source as saying that Mr Bannon is also being investigated for money laundering and possible loans.
Mr Manafort, who worked for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and was briefly a political adviser to Mr Trump, was indicted on multiple charges on 11 October 2017.
He later pleaded not guilty and is currently on bail.
Mr Manafort’s former business partner, Gates, pleaded guilty on Monday to charges including conspiracy against the United States and making false statements to investigators.
Image copyright Reuters Image caption Mr Trump’s lawyer has denied the collusion allegations
Rudy Giuliani, a senior White House official, told Fox News on Wednesday that Mr Bannon “is just paying for his mistakes”, the New York Times said.
He added that Mr Bannon’s case should be heard in a civil court, not a criminal one.