Steve Bannon, talk show host and former White House advisor to former U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks to reporters before entering U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2022.
Steve Bannon, talk show host and former White House advisor to former U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks to reporters before entering U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2022. Reuters / ELIZABETH FRANTZ

A federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday at Steve Bannon's criminal trial that the prominent former presidential adviser to Donald Trump decided he was "above the law" in defying a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating last year's attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Prosecution and defense lawyers delivered opening statements in the trial after the jury was selected in the case. The defense told jurors that Bannon did not ignore the subpoena and in fact engaged with the committee.

Bannon, 68, has pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts of contempt of Congress brought after he declined last year to provide testimony or documents to the Democratic-led House of Representatives select committee.

The subpoena, prosecutor Amanda Vaughn told jurors, "wasn't optional. It wasn't a request. And it wasn't an invitation. It was mandatory."

"The defendant decided he was above the law," Vaughn added. "That's why we're here today."

Vaughn said the committee had reason to believe Bannon might have some information potentially about the events leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack. Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol and attacked police in a failed effort to block formal congressional certification of his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

Bannon "didn't get stuck on a broken down Metro car," Vaughn said of his refusal to comply with the subpoena, referring to the Washington area's subway system. Instead, the case is about "the defendant thumbing his nose" at the normal process of government, Vaughn said.

Evan Corcoran, a lawyer for Bannon, began the defense opening statement by telling the jury: "This is Steve Bannon and he is innocent of the charges."

Corcoran said that in almost every instance committee staff and lawyers for proposed witnesses will negotiate - and they often will appear for a later date than the one specified in the subpoena.

"That's the process," Corcoran said.

Corcoran said Bannon has served the United States, including in the Navy. Bannon is a "political thinker and political strategist" and he "helped a candidate run for office," Corcoran said, referring to Trump. After Trump was elected, Corcoran said, "Mr. Bannon again served our country."

Twelve jurors and two alternates - nine men and five women - were selected from a pool of 22 people deemed qualified to hear the case. U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols is presiding.

Nichols had previously ruled that Bannon could not claim he failed to comply with the subpoena because he believed his documents and testimony were protected by a legal doctrine called executive privilege that can keep certain presidential communications confidential.

The judge also previously barred Bannon from telling jurors that he relied upon advice from his lawyer, who told him there were valid legal reasons he could fail to respond to the subpoena.

Nichols left open the door last week for Bannon to offer a defense that he believed the subpoena deadlines were flexible and subject to negotiation. Bannon reversed course this month and said he wanted to testify before a public committee hearing, nearly 10 months after defying the subpoena. Trump told Bannon he was waiving any executive privilege claim.

Bannon's lawyers on Tuesday said that they need to be able to explain to the jury that Bannon believed executive privilege applied when he defied the committee.

"You will also see the excuse the defendant gave for not complying. You will see he claimed something called a privilege," Vaughn told the jury.

"It's not up to the defendant or anyone else to decide whether he an ignore the subpoena deadline," she added. "It's up to the committee."

As a top adviser to the Republican Trump's 2016 presidential campaign who later served as White House chief strategist, Bannon helped articulate the "America First" right-wing populism and fierce opposition to immigration that helped define Trump's presidency.

Trump last year issued a pardon to Bannon on separate criminal charges of defrauding donors to a private fund-raising effort to boost the former president's project to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.