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The January 6 committee’s showdown with Mark Meadows, explained

The committee revealed more about its hoped-for endgame.

Mark Meadows, who was President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, in October 2020.
Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is the latest ex-Trump aide to face legal jeopardy related to the House of Representatives’ investigation of the January 6 insurrection.

The House voted to hold Meadows in contempt of Congress Tuesday after Meadows skipped a scheduled deposition and refused to provide documents the committee had subpoenaed. The move comes after Meadows himself sued the committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, arguing their subpoenas were overbroad.

The contempt vote was 222-208, with only two Republicans, investigation committee vice chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) and retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), joining Democrats to vote in favor.

The committee badly wants Meadows’s testimony because he was at President Donald Trump’s side on and before the events of January 6, and clearly has knowledge of several topics they are investigating, such as why it took Trump so long to intervene and try to end the violence on that day. Meadows doesn’t want to give that testimony, or hand over all of the documents the committee has requested.

The House vote is, in practice, a recommendation that the Justice Department charge Meadows criminally. In the last such referral in the insurrection investigation, the department acted quickly, getting a grand jury to indict Steve Bannon just a few weeks later. But unlike Bannon, who was a private citizen during the events in question, Meadows was an executive branch employee, so the Justice Department will have to consider the legal concept of executive privilege — the right of the president to shield communications from other branches of government like Congress.

Meadows argues he’s trying to protect presidential privilege by not testifying. But he’s handed over some documents already, including a bizarre PowerPoint presentation he was sent and text exchanges he had while the insurrection was taking place. Members of the committee have pointed out that he won’t even agree to testify under subpoena about these, which they say demonstrates contempt of Congress.

There’s much speculation about what Meadows might be trying to hide, but that question is unanswerable at this point. However, Cheney revealed more about what the committee might be trying to build toward, in comments alluding to questions about whether Trump obstructed an official proceeding with his actions “or inaction” on and around January 6. It remains unclear whether such a case will be made, or if the Justice Department will pursue it.

Still, the big picture of what happened after the 2020 election has been clear for some time: Trump tried to steal it. He tried to do so by pressuring GOP officials (including his own vice president) to seize power and overturn the outcome. He entertained proposals about more extreme executive actions, but did not follow through. He whipped his supporters into a frenzy, and when they stormed the Capitol, he was delighted, and slow to tell them to stand down.

And despite all that, Donald Trump is leading most recent polls of a 2024 rematch against President Joe Biden.

How Meadows got to this point

Since Meadows was with Trump in the White House as chaos unfolded inside the Capitol on January 6, and was involved with some of Trump’s attempts to overturn Biden’s win beforehand, the select committee has been keenly interested in getting his testimony.

Initially, Meadows hoped that Biden’s White House would save him from a congressional subpoena by asserting the former president’s right to keep his aides’ communications secret under executive privilege. But they announced last month they would not do so. So since then, Meadows has been in a back-and-forth with the committee about just what he might do.

By November 30, it appeared they’d made some progress. Meadows provided a substantial number of records to the committee that he made no claim of executive privilege over, and said he’d agreed to appear for a deposition. But over the next week, things fell apart.

First, news broke that Meadows had a book coming out in which he’d revealed that Trump tested positive for the coronavirus before his debate with Biden in October 2020 — an earlier timeline for Trump’s illness than had previously been known (though Meadows says Trump also tested negative on a rapid test shortly after that). Trump was furious about this revelation.

About a week after that, on December 7, Meadows’s attorney sent a letter to the January 6 committee saying he was withdrawing from an agreement to testify the next day. The attorney, George Terwilliger III, claimed Meadows made this decision because he didn’t believe the committee would respect executive privilege in its questioning, and also complained that the committee had subpoenaed Meadows’s phone records from Verizon. Shortly afterward, Meadows filed suit against the committee, trying to get those subpoenas blocked.

The committee countered with a joint statement from its chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and vice chair Cheney, claiming there were “voluminous official records” in Meadows’s personal phone and email accounts that may not have been properly turned over to the National Archives. (An Archives spokesperson confirmed this to Politico soon afterward.) Thompson and Cheney also made clear they would find Meadows in contempt of Congress and refer him for possible criminal prosecution. And, this week, both the committee and the full House did so, with the committee outlining their rationale in a report on Meadows’s conduct.

What Meadows has turned over

Meanwhile, some of the documents Meadows did turn over to the committee spilled out into public view in recent days.

One was a PowerPoint presentation titled “Election fraud, foreign interference, and options for 6 JAN” put together by a retired US Army colonel named Phil Waldron. The Guardian’s Hugo Lowell tweeted parts of one version of this presentation, which claimed there had been “foreign interference” in the election on Biden’s behalf, and recommended declaring a “national security emergency” and declaring all electronic voting “invalid.” Waldron briefed Republican members of Congress, and a version of his presentation ended up being sent to Meadows.

But while the PowerPoint presentation is certainly revealing of what kind of extreme ideas Trump supporters were entertaining at this point, there’s no indication that Meadows acted on it or did anything with it — for all we know at this point, it is just something that showed up in his inbox.

January 6 committee members also revealed various texts Meadows had received after the election and particularly on the day of the attack. In the texts, Fox hosts Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Brian Kilmeade all pleaded for Meadows to get Trump to do something to stop the violence — and so did Donald Trump Jr.

The texts show the hypocrisy of some of these figures, who have since downplayed the import of what happened that day. They also refocus attention on central questions of the committee, which Meadows could theoretically shed light on — why did it take so long for Trump to intervene that day, and what was the president saying and doing privately in those first few hours after the Capitol was stormed? These are the questions that Meadows clearly does not want to answer.

It’s unclear what lies ahead for Meadows — and the investigation

Mere weeks passed between the House’s referral of Bannon for prosecution and Bannon’s indictment by a Washington, DC, grand jury. Yet Bannon was so openly defiant of the committee’s subpoenas — and he quite obviously had no claim to executive privilege, since he had left the government in 2017 — that his was basically an open-and-shut case.

The same may not be true for Meadows. In part, this is because at various points Meadows has at least tried to make a show of willingness to cooperate with the committee. But the Justice Department will also have to sort out the thorny issue of executive privilege. They may conclude Meadows should indeed be indicted, but it could take more time.

As for where the investigation is headed, comments from Cheney this week were particularly interesting.

“Mr. Meadows’s testimony will bear on another key question before this committee: Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes?” Cheney said.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out that this language alludes to the language of a federal criminal statute for obstruction of an official proceeding. That is: Cheney is floating the possibility that Trump himself could be charged with a crime related to January 6, a prospect that has seemed quite remote for much of the year.

Again, it is unclear how strong a case can be made, and whether Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department would take the enormously controversial move of charging a former president. But this may well be the committee’s endgame.

It’s been a rough year for those outraged by the insurrection, though, with Biden’s popularity dropping, Democratic congressional majorities looking imperiled, Trump polling well for 2024, and media coverage mostly moving on to other issues. If the committee hopes to make the former president face serious consequences for his actions that day, well, the clock is ticking.

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