The House voted late Tuesday night to hold former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in criminal contempt of Congress for his refusal to comply with a subpoena issued by the committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
The measure was approved on a 222-208 vote, with just two Republicans—Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—joining every Democrat present in voting “yes.” Tuesday’s full House vote comes one day after the members of the bipartisan select committee voted unanimously in favor of the resolution. A contempt of Congress charge holds a penalty of up to a year in jail.
The committee found that Meadows, a longtime lawmaker from North Carolina who chaired the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has knowledge regarding former President Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to persuade state officials to alter their official election results and undermine the 2020 presidential election. At the time of his criminal referral, Meadows had already produced thousands of documents for the panel, including text messages and emails related to the events of the day, but he then refused to appear for a deposition scheduled for Dec. 8.
On Monday and Tuesday, committee vice chairman Rep. Cheney read aloud some of the text messages that Republicans sent to Meadows on Jan. 6 as violence engulfed the Capitol.
“It’s really bad up here on the hill,” one said.
“The President needs to stop this asap,” another wrote.
“Someone is going to get killed,” one warned.
The messages he turned over to the panel also include Jan. 6 exchanges with the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and multiple Fox News hosts, who all called on the president to speak out amid the violent attack.
“He’s got to condemn this shit ASAP,” Trump Jr. texted Meadows, who responded: “I’m pushing it hard. I agree.”
Cheney said that the former president ignored these pleas for help and “refused to act when his action was required,” raising the question of whether Trump may have illegally sought to “obstruct or impede” Congress’ vote count.
Another document turned over to the panel—a phone call from Meadows and Trump to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—revealed that Trump asked Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes to change the result of the election.”
Meadows, who sued the Jan. 6 commission last week for issuing “two overly broad and unduly burdensome subpoenas” against him, said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Monday night that he does not have to testify on any issue that the former president claims is protected by executive privilege.
“I’ve tried to share non-privileged information,” Meadows said. “But truly the executive privilege that Donald Trump has claimed is his to waive. It’s not mine to waive.”
Legal experts have cast doubt on the merit of Meadows’s defense and say that he’s not completely shielded from answering questions, particularly those unrelated to his official White House duties. Trump’s sweeping claims of executive privilege to shield his activities and aides from congressional testimony have also been questioned by constitutional experts.
The matter now goes to the Justice Department, which will decide whether to pursue the contempt referral. But even if Meadows is indicted, the Jan. 6 commission will essentially be at the same place as it was before: without answers on why the former president did not urge his supporters to stand down earlier.
“Once the committee moves to contempt, they’ve essentially given up getting any information from him,” says Jonathan Shaub, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who previously served in the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice. “Holding him in contempt is their biggest weapon, but it doesn’t mean he has to answer questions.”
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It’s unclear when a final resolution on Meadows will be made, but it could take some time. The contempt trial of Steve Bannon, who also failed to comply with a subpoena from the Jan. 6 panel, is set to begin on July 18, just months before the Nov. 8 midterm elections that will determine control of Congress. If Republicans win back the House, which Democrats currently control with a narrow majority, they could have the power to dissolve the Select Committee entirely.
Shaub says the Justice Department will likely take a similar approach to Meadows as it took when it indicted Bannon on two charges last month. Meadows’ case could be more complicated, however, since the two had very different roles at the time of the deadly riot: Meadows was a close presidential advisor and Bannon a private citizen. Meadows has used that White House title to fight for absolute testimonial immunity, which absolves certain individuals who hold or held certain positions from any obligation to appear before Congress when called.
“Almost every conversation that he’s had is potentially privileged,” Shaub says. “But the absolute immunity doctrine is one the courts have rejected very soundly, even though the executive branch still continues to claim it.” Last year, the Supreme Court rejected the absolute immunity argument as a basis for Trump not turning over his tax returns.
Before the House vote on Tuesday, Meadows’s lawyer George J. Terwilliger III spoke out against the charges, writing in a statement that his client never “stopped cooperating” with the committee and citing the thousands of documents he released to the panel. Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) also urged fellow House Republicans to vote ‘no’ on the resolution, saying Meadows has “made good faith efforts to cooperate” with the committee.
Meadows’ legal team, Shaub says, may try to make the same point about acting in good faith to negate the criminal charges necessary for the Justice Department to indict him.
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