Steve Bannon hires D.C. super lawyer and Mueller skeptic to represent his nonprofit

Key Points
  • Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon brought in conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell to represent his nonprofit.
  • Mitchell was a skeptic of the Mueller probe and was listed as a potential witness by the House Intel Committee looking into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.
  • Bannon's decision to hire Mitchell comes as he continues to protect the identity of his contributors and works to stay in the good graces of President Donald Trump.
Former advisor to the US president and US publicist Steve Bannon poses during a photo session in Paris on May 27, 2019.
Joel Saget | AFP | Getty Images

Former chief White House chief strategist Steve Bannon quietly brought in Washington D.C. super lawyer Cleta Mitchell to represent his nonprofit, Citizens of the American Republic, CNBC has learned.

Mitchell, a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, confirmed in an email that she is the legal counsel for the organization after she was asked for its 990 tax return, which would show detailed financial information, including how much donors contributed to the group and revenue totals.

All nonprofits are required to submit these documents through their attorneys to the Internal Revenue Service and, according to Mitchell, Bannon's organization has filed for an extension on its 501(c)(4). She did not recall the extension's deadline, and declined to comment further on how she's been helping Bannon's team.

Bannon's decision to draft Mitchell comes as he continues to protect the identity of his contributors and works to stay in the good graces of President Donald Trump. He departed the White House in 2017 under a cloud. Nonprofits are not legally required to disclose the names of their financial supporters.

Mitchell's political views are similar to Bannon's and these groups often look for legal representatives who can relate to their causes. Among other conservative groups, she represented the National Rifle Association.

Bannon, a nationalist firebrand, told CNBC in August when he first launched the group that his donors are the "savviest investors in the country." He added that they were mainly business executives who have hawkish views on China. Bannon, a China hawk himself, did not provide a single name of anyone who wrote checks for the organization.

Citizens of the American Republic website features Bannon at a fundraising event for We Build the Wall Inc., a nonprofit that supports Trump's plan to beef up security at the southern border. Bannon and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach are members of its board.

Other clips on the website feature takes on economic nationalism, fighting China and stopping illegal immigration.

Bannon did not return a request for comment.

In the past, Mitchell has been openly skeptical of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign's potential collusion with Russian operatives during the 2016 election. In an op-ed published in the National Review the same month Bannon announced his new project, Mitchell questioned why Mueller wasn't focusing on Hillary Clinton potentially breaking campaign finance laws.

"Maybe this means that Mueller might step out of his snipe hunt of an investigation of Russian 'collusion' in 2016 to take an actual interest in whether there was compliance with federal campaign-finance law by both 2016 presidential campaigns, not just President Trump's," she wrote at the time.

She was included on a list of witnesses Democrats wanted to interview when they were in the minority on the House Intelligence Committee. The Democrats on the committee wanted Mitchell to describe her work with the National Rifle Association when it was one of her clients.

Mitchell "may be able to clarify for the Committee any Russian-related approaches to and interaction with the organization [NRA] and persons of interest to the Committee during the 2016 election," Democrats on the committee wrote in 2018.

A spokesman for the now Democratic majority of the House Intel Committee declined to comment.

Cleta Mitchell, Partner Foley and Lardner LLP.
Pablo Martinez | AP

The NRA has been a subject of intense scrutiny as reports have surfaced showing the gun lobbying juggernaut may have ties to Russia. Maria Butina, a Russian gun rights activist, was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to trying to gain access to the NRA and other American organizations.

Mitchell also has a history of taking part in conservative causes. In 2014, she went to Capitol Hill to testify on conservatives allegedly being targeted by the IRS throughout the tenure of President Barack Obama. "There are lies upon lies in this ugly episode," she said. "The commissioner of the IRS lied to congress."

Bannon, who left the White House in 2017 after a tumultuous first year in the administration, has since tried expand his conservative brand of politics in the U.S. and overseas. 

Some of those efforts seem to have petered out. In 2018, he said he would travel to at least 10 states while his group would spend $3 million on digital ads showing how the president is at war with Democrats. Even though voters did attend his rallies, Republicans that he was supporting did not always show up to participate. Republicans eventually lost the House of Representatives and Democrats ended up gaining at least 40 seats.

Meanwhile in Europe, the nationalist movement he supports made inroads in the most recent elections, but it's unclear how much influence Bannon had there.

Steve Bannon tells CNBC there's 'no chance' Trump will back down in China trade war
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