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Why is Steve Bannon reversing course and now willing to testify in Jan. 6 hearings?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Earlier this week, Steve Bannon reversed course. The longtime adviser to Donald Trump says he's now willing to cooperate with the House committee investigating the January 6 attack. Bannon first defied the committee's subpoena, and he was charged with contempt of Congress. Despite his change of heart, his contempt trial is still set to begin on Monday. Joshua Green is a Bloomberg Businessweek correspondent who understands Steve Bannon better than most. He's author of the book "Devil's Bargain" about the Bannon-Trump partnership. Hi there.

JOSHUA GREEN: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Why would Bannon agree to testify before the committee? Was this all about trying to avoid his criminal trial?

GREEN: I think it mostly was, but I think there's a second reason, and that is Donald Trump's feelings toward having his supporters testify before the January 6 committee. Last fall, when the committee first came together, Trump was vehemently opposed to it and made clear that he didn't want people to cooperate with it. And that's one big reason why Steve Bannon spurned the subpoena that's now got him in so much trouble.

But I think what's changed is that over the last three or four weeks, the January 6 committee has done a fairly compelling job of portraying Trump as, if not a traitor, then somebody certainly who was complicit in the attacks on the Capitol. And nobody is out there defending him, so Trump has gotten very upset and has changed his mind about whether he wants Bannon to testify. And so he's - Trump has written a letter releasing Bannon from Trump's earlier assertion of executive privilege and now is hoping that he'll go before the committee and defend Trump.

SHAPIRO: And does that explain why Bannon's lawyers said in their letter to the committee that their client would be, quote, "willing to and indeed prefers to testify at your public hearing," that he's almost going in there as a surrogate or defense lawyer for Trump?

GREEN: What Trump and what Bannon would like better than anything is to go in and testify at a public hearing and cause all sorts of a ruckus, to seize the narrative that the January 6 committee has very carefully constructed and offer a counter-story, misinformation about who really won the election, the sort of thing that Steve Bannon is very good at doing, if you listen to his podcast or any of his public speeches. So what's going on here, I think, is two things. No. 1, Bannon really doesn't want to go to jail, and so he's trying to avoid accountability for having spurned the subpoena. And the second thing is, I think he'd like to change the narrative around the January 6 committee.

SHAPIRO: So while Bannon may be trying to change the narrative, the committee has some real information they would like to ask him about. We learned at Tuesday's committee hearing that Bannon spoke with President Trump twice on January 5. And new leaked audio from three days before Election Day reveals that there was already a plan in place for Trump to declare victory on election night, whether or not it looked like he was winning. How do those developments shape our understanding of Bannon's role in the January 6 events?

GREEN: Well, I think it begins to broaden it out a little bit more. And we already knew from Bannon's public statements on his podcast, his contemporaneous statements, that he said, you know, this was going to be a big deal, that all hell was going to break loose. Steve Bannon is not a guy who likes to hide his light under a bushel. So his feelings and his involvement in all of this were known at the time. I think what's happened with the evidence that's come to light over the last few days is that it started to fill out that picture. We now know that he was in touch with the president. We know that on some level he was helping to organize and amplify and encourage the rally that turned into a riot. And I think what the committee is hoping to get in its testimony is a fuller sense of exactly what he did and exactly what President Trump did in the days and hours leading up to that riot and then, of course, what kind of communication they had as the attack on the Capitol was unfolding on January 6.

SHAPIRO: Jury selection in this criminal contempt trial begins on Monday. What are you going to be looking for?

GREEN: Well, I'm going to be looking to see if Bannon's lawyers can convince the judge that this last-minute letter from Trump releasing Bannon from the claim of executive privilege allows them to say, look, we didn't really spurn the subpoena. We were negotiating under the terms of Bannon's cooperation, and now, you know, having gotten this letter, we're willing to do it. The judge left open a small possibility that an argument like that could be made. But the judge also said we're going to go ahead with a trial and jury selection beginning Monday. So Steve Bannon is, at least from what we know right now, is not going to avoid a criminal trial.

SHAPIRO: Joshua Green is a correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency." Thanks a lot.

GREEN: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Elena Burnett