Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Tuesday became the latest Donald Trump acolyte to bow to the former President’s ire, begging out of his scheduled deposition with the House committee investigating the January 6 riot — despite having given over key documents that will help build their case.
But even as he dodges a face-to-face meeting, congressional investigators aren’t done with Meadows. They plan to move forward with the former North Carolina congressman’s scheduled interview on Wednesday, and possibly seek criminal contempt charges if he follows through on his planned no-show — setting up a legal clash that could land him in court, like fellow Trump ally Steve Bannon.
Meadows’ attempts to play both sides — insisting he wants to be helpful to the committee, then turning defiant when faced with live questioning — is also likely a time-wasting measure. His goal, and those of other Trump allies, it seems, is to run down the clock on the committee, perhaps in hopes that its work will get tied up in legal fights that extend into the next Congress, when a potential GOP majority would surely shut it down.
For now though, the select committee carrying out the probe into the armed assault on the Capitol has pledged to carry on seeking the truth despite Trump allies’ bids to obscure it. The proceedings at which Meadows had been scheduled to take center stage will go on, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who lead the committee, said in a joint response to Meadows’ announcement.
“Obviously, we had hoped Mr. Meadows would continue to work with the committee. But obviously based on his lawyer’s letter today and his plan to not show up for the deposition, that creates a different dynamic,” Thompson said later Tuesday. “We were prepared to go with contempt earlier, but we withheld it based on what we thought was an agreement that we’d work together. That has not been the case.”
Despite his eleventh hour volte-face, Meadows might well have already delivered the probe new information of interest in the form of 6,000 pages of documents. A source familiar with the matter told CNN that the records already in the committee’s possession include communications from January 6 and, though the specifics remain a mystery, “many people had Meadows’ cell phone” number.
Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar of California offered more detail late Tuesday, telling CNN’s Annie Grayer that documents Meadows has already supplied the committee include evidence that he was in communication with “individuals that were responsible for the planning of January 6.”
Asked why he believes Meadows suddenly decided to clam up, Aguilar speculated that it was an attempt by Meadows to repair or save what’s left of his relationship with Trump.
“Maybe (Meadows’) conflict was with his book tour,” Aguilar said. “The only thing that really changed was the former President’s posture. According to press reports, the former President wasn’t happy with Mr. Meadows and a lot of these folks, just, you know, clearly as we saw on January 5 and 6, do whatever the former President wants.”
One more detail Trump most assuredly did not want made public came out nonetheless on Tuesday — with Meadows, again, as the messenger. In a newly publicized snippet from his tell-some memoir, “The Chief’s Chief,” it was revealed that the former President’s blood oxygen levels dipped to a “dangerously low level” shortly after he announced he had tested positive for Covid-19 in October 2020. This follows, among other remarkable details, Meadows’ recounting in the book how Trump went fishing for a negative test result after an earlier positive ahead of his first debate with then-candidate Joe Biden.
The Bannon precedent
In displeasing Trump, as he has with the book littered with unflattering revelations, Meadows risks a backlash from the MAGA audience he is counting on to juice sales. He is also now being measured against Bannon, the former top Trump adviser who is relishing his legal fight. Bannon livestreamed his November surrender to authorities as he chases after a profitable political martyrdom.
“This is going to be the misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden,” Bannon told reporters last month as he held a court of his own outside the actual courtroom, at one point suggesting that he, like Trump, was being targeted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and said she should “ask Hillary Clinton how that turned out.”
Bannon, a judge announced on Tuesday, will not face trial on his contempt of Congress charges until July 18, during the heat of the 2022 midterm primary season. The Justice Department had asked for the proceedings to begin in April but ended up with a compromise date, with Bannon pushing for proceedings to be delayed until mid-October, weeks before the elections.
Meadows is a less melodramatic character, but, at least tactically, appears to be pursuing a similar route.
In a letter to the committee, his attorney, George J. Terwilliger, contended that Meadows’ decision to skip out on Wednesday’s hearing was prompted by investigators’ decision to subpoena “information from a third party communications provider” — likely meaning metadata about phone calls and texts that might reveal more about who was talking to whom and when before, during and after the riot.
The nut of Meadows’ argument is that, in seeking out a broader picture of what happened, the committee telegraphed plans to probe Meadows for what Terwilliger described as information protected by Trump’s “executive privilege.” But Biden’s office — now the arbiter of that privilege — has repeatedly refused to assert it over documents that Trump has sought to keep private. And, as Democrats have noted, Meadows commitment to keeping presidential secrets did not extend to the writing and promoting of his insider memoir.
Wednesday’s hearing now will likely feature members of the select committee across from an empty chair — and not for the first time. Meadows declined to show up for questioning last month, on the same day a federal grand jury returned Bannon’s indictment, which had been sought by the Justice Department for his own failure to testify.
Timed to perfection on Tuesday, a group of right-wing Republican House members held a news conference to slam the January 6 committee’s work, complain about the treatment of defendants in Capitol riot cases, and, courtesy of Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, offer a preview of what’s in store if his party wins control of the chamber next year.
We are going to take power after this next election. And when we do, it’s not going to be like the days of (former House Speaker) Paul Ryan and (Rep.) Trey Gowdy and no real oversight and no real subpoenas,” Gaetz said. “It’s going to be the days of (GOP Reps.) Jim Jordan, Marjorie Greene, Dr. (Paul) Gosar, and myself.”
Gaetz did not mention, when name-dropping Gowdy, that the former congressman from South Carolina had in fact overseen a long, politically driven investigation into the attack on Americans in Benghazi — which subpoenaed Clinton, who provided hours of live testimony — as part of an effort that current GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy infamously described on Fox News in 2015 as a “strategy to fight and win.”
Democrats on the January 6 committee have mostly ignored the showmanship of the MAGA crowd and continue to project confidence that their work will ultimately produce the intended final product — a comprehensive report on the riot, crafted from testimony and evidence provided by the hundreds of people it has already interviewed.
Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, now a CNN law enforcement analyst, suggested Tuesday night on “Anderson Cooper 360” that Bannon himself was, at this point, likely a “lost cause for the committee.”
Indications are that at least a few of the members might agree and, slightly below the radar, are plumbing other Trump allies for potentially incriminating knowledge about the insurrection’s planning, the deadly siege, or official efforts to cover up in the aftermath. The willingness to cooperate of those in former Vice President Mike Pence’s orbit, including his former chief of staff Marc Short, is another wild card. Short was with Pence at the Capitol on January 6, as protesters outside called for his boss’ murder, and is now assisting the committee, according to multiple sources with knowledge of its activities.
Team Trump has, unsurprisingly, been tougher to pin down as individuals weigh their interests alongside and against those of Trump, who never misses a slight.
But Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and committee member, told CNN’s Ryan Nobles that while Meadows’ and Bannon’s evasions are complicating the committee’s work, the Justice Department’s prosecution of Bannon has been an effective tool for encouraging other, lesser lights, to cooperate.
As for those signaling they would invoke their Fifth Amendment rights to keep from answering questions, Schiff said the committee would treat them with appropriate skepticism.
“If they’re asserting the Fifth merely to cater to the President’s whims or cover up for the President, that is not a proper use of the privilege,” he said. “But we will have to do our best to divine whether they’re properly invoking the Fifth or using it as a stratagem to keep information.”