Conservative commentators subpoenaed by Senate Judiciary Committee

On January 6, a panel of five conservative pundits and conservative political groups will be subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their appearance comes in an ongoing effort to hold senior administration officials to account over the administration’s alleged ties to the Russian government.

The subpoena is being served by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Special Ensemble Group of Former Federal Prosecutors led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The committee’s investigative arm, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, issued subpoenas to the Democratic and Republican groups demanding their testimony. They also issued subpoenas to several media companies, including Fusion GPS, which spearheaded the Trump-Russia investigation into the 2016 election.

The subpoena is demanding that these prominent conservative pundits, who have appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program and other conservative media outlets, detail their relationships with the Russians and officials representing them, their assistance to the campaign and aid they provided to the Trump administration. Additionally, they must describe their contacts with “Department of Justice and Justice Department-related employees,” as well as those who communicated with “the media,” “political parties, committees,” and “television networks.”

Among those who have been subpoenaed are former Breitbart CEO Stephen Bannon, Mark Block of the far-right political organization Red White and Blue Fund, Pete Hegseth, co-founder of Concerned Veterans for America, Brent Bozell of the conservative public policy group ForAmerica, and various law firms and financial services firms.

Both Bannon and Bozell told The New York Times last week that they would appear voluntarily.

“I know these people, they know me. If I’m required to go, I’ll go,” Bannon said, according to the Times.

However, Branch Bozell, a longtime conservative leader, said that he was offered a choice of paying $40,000 or losing his subpoena.

“If I pay up, the subpoena is over,” Bozell said. “If I don’t pay up, the subpoena is in effect.”

That decision means Bozell would face an uncertain future in conservative politics. He had been pushed out of the organization he led, American Majority, earlier this year after vocally voicing objections to what he perceived as a drift away from the far-right and toward the GOP establishment.

Block said he had not received a subpoena as of Thursday, but was complying with all other subpoenas. “I’m just going to take the subpoena that’s been issued and I’m going to turn it in,” he said, according to the Times.

Democrats are largely opposed to the subpoenas, with several pointing out that the efforts by conservative groups and pundits on a project directed by the Senate’s Democratic leadership is selective, among other ethical and legal concerns.

Graham defended the effort this week. “I didn’t promise anything in the subpoena,” he said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, adding that “I had no reason to believe that anything would be done after the hearing.”

Under the First Amendment, there is no requirement for government officials and leaders of non-profit groups to reveal their personal communication with members of Congress. The Trump administration has been criticized for having a “normalization” of relations with Russia that may limit discussion and scrutiny of what is happening, in the cases of the administration’s travel ban on citizens of certain majority-Muslim countries and its plans to grant Russia special privileges in its U.S. visa program.

Graham has championed the Trump administration on several policies, including the decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Russia and move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He also spearheaded the referral of two Russian intelligence agents to the United States government for trial. Graham has raised concerns, however, about the Trump administration’s handling of some other issues, including its association with white nationalists and the so-called “alt-right” movement, and for asserting power over border officials.

Lawyers for the subpoena recipients, including those whose communications have not been requested, will appear at a hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m. In a statement Wednesday, Graham said they would be “vigorously defending our clients’ First Amendment rights.”

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