Jurisprudence

Mark Meadows Overplayed His Hand

Mark Meadows in sunglasses and Debbie Meadows in a fur walking arm in arm with an airplane in the background
Mark Meadows and his wife, Debbie Meadows, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Jan. 20. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted 222–208 to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to appear for testimony before the select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Two Republicans joined nearly every Democrat in voting for the resolution.

Given that Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice indicted Steve Bannon last month for a similar violation of the law and that Bannon is now facing up to a year in prison, Meadows should be worried that he will also be prosecuted for his effort to block information about his own role in attempted insurrection.

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The former congressman from North Carolina initially appeared to have had a better legal defense than Bannon, with both men claiming their testimony was shielded by executive privilege. Bannon was not a White House adviser during Jan. 6, while Meadows was the president’s top White House aide with some level of immunity from compelled testimony on issues touching upon executive privilege. However, Meadows almost certainly shot himself in the foot by cooperating for about a week, waiving any privilege claim as it pertains to thousands of pages of documents he agreed to share with the committee. Further, Meadows openly discussed the episodes he claims are covered by executive privilege in his recently released book.

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Because Meadows wrote about Jan. 6 in his book and handed over nonprivileged information that he acknowledges could be discussed with the committee, the case against him should be as rock-solid as it is against Bannon—and Garland should clearly go ahead with the prosecution.

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Ultimately, Meadows’ brief cooperation may do more to benefit the committee than the damage he is doing by refusing to testify. Some of Meadows’ materials released by the committee on Monday included a series of explosive text messages from Fox News commentators, Republican members of Congress, and even Donald Trump Jr. All were practically begging Meadows to compel Trump to disperse the mob he sent to the Capitol on Jan. 6. We still don’t know the full scope of what Meadows shared.

This contempt referral also comes after Trump expressed his fury at Meadows for revealing in his book that Trump was secretly spreading COVID-19 for several days before his positive diagnosis was made public. With these admissions, Meadows has put himself in the worst of all positions: He’s already betrayed Trump by revealing damaging information, and now he may go to prison to protect his former boss.

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Indeed, covering up for Trump is clearly the aim of the three or four witnesses, out of more than 300 who are cooperating in some way, who have refused to talk with the committee. During the debate over Meadows’ contempt charge, House Democrats emphasized this point.

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“If you’re making excuses to avoid cooperating with our investigation, you’re making excuses to hide the truth from the American people about what happened on Jan. 6,” said committee chairman Bennie Thompson. “You’re making excuses as part of a cover-up.”

Thompson noted that his own Republican colleagues appeared eager to parrot those excuses and were thus taking part in their own attempted cover-up for Trump, which doubles as an effort to run out the clock until the 2022 midterms, when Republicans hope to take back the House. If the plan succeeds, it is clear that they would immediately kill the Jan. 6 probe.

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Ultimately, in debating against the contempt referral, Republicans put members of the extremist Freedom Caucus—to which Meadows belonged when he was in Congress—front and center. The GOP’s most radical members were the face of the defense of Meadows.

Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected from the committee for his comments diminishing the Jan. 6 attack, led the GOP response, with QAnon conspiracist Marjorie Taylor Greene sitting right behind him.

Banks accused the committee investigating the scope of the greatest attack on our nation’s Capitol in 200 years of “secret snooping, harassment, contempt for the rules of Congress, criminalization of dissent … and [putting] their opponents in jail.”

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Republicans further complained that the committee hadn’t been properly impaneled, because House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pulled the remaining Republican-selected members off the committee after Pelosi refused to seat Banks and fellow Jan. 6 denier Jim Jordan. If refusing to sit on a committee made it invalid, of course, that would give the minority veto power over any action of any congressional committee by merely boycotting it. That’s not how it works.

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“This isn’t nitpicking,” Banks demanded, as he complained of the lack of Republican members—other than Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney—caused by his own party’s boycott. These complaints very much are nitpicking. But boycotting and complaining are all most House Republicans have ever offered in response to the incontrovertible horror the president unleashed on Jan. 6.

Their presentations quickly devolved into a series of attempts to derail the discussion over technicalities. Rep. Scott Perry caused a 45-minute interruption by claiming that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had disparaged Banks in an unparliamentary manner by saying his Republican colleague was “fearing the truth.” Republicans pushed for Hoyer’s remarks to be stricken from the record. The request was denied, which became another point of grievance, with Jordan whining, “They just said a naval veteran is afraid of the truth.”

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Indeed, though, Rep. Andy Biggs closed out the Republican defense of Meadows by arguing another technicality—the false claim that the committee does not have any plausible legislative purpose—while at the same time admitting that, yes, his side does not want the truth to come out.

“You can’t have a committee to find out what happened because you’re interested. You can’t do that. And that is what you are doing,” Biggs moaned.

By diminishing the attempted fact-finding, Republican members of Congress are once again saying they don’t care about what happened on Jan. 6. While accountability for Meadows and others will not convince a Trump-enthralled party to change its ways, perhaps it will make the next attempted coup a bit more difficult.

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