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Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Meadows in contempt, sending a criminal referral to House

Then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks with reporters outside the White House on Oct. 26, 2020.
Patrick Semansky
Then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks with reporters outside the White House on Oct. 26, 2020.

Updated December 13, 2021 at 8:51 PM ET

The Democratic-led House select committee investigating the Capitol attack has voted to hold Mark Meadows in criminal contempt of Congress, sending to the full House a referral for the former Trump White House chief of staff to face a criminal charge.

The Monday night vote was months in the making. Meadows had initially cooperated with the panel and turned over thousands of emails and text messages, but he reversed course last week, saying a day before he was due to appear for a deposition that he would no longer be cooperating with the probe.

Ahead of the vote, the panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, read a litany of text messages she said Meadows received during the Jan. 6 siege, urging him to get then-President Donald Trump to tell his supporters to leave the Capitol.

Cheney said the messages that Meadows turned over came from lawmakers, Fox News hosts including Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, and even Donald Trump Jr.

"He's got to condemn this s***," Trump Jr. wrote to Meadows, according to Cheney. "The Capitol Police tweet is not enough."

She said Meadows responded, "I'm pushing it hard." Cheney said Trump Jr. replied again and again, including: "We need an Oval Office address. He has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand."

The nine-member committee, made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans, voted unanimously in favor of the referral.

"It comes down to this: Mr. Meadows started by doing the right thing — cooperating. He handed over records that he didn't try to shield behind some excuse. But in an investigation like ours, that's just a first step," Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in remarks ahead of the vote. "When the records raise questions — as these most certainly do — you have to come in and answer those questions. And when it's time for him to follow the law, come in, and testify on those questions. He changed his mind and told us to pound sand. He didn't even show up."

The Democratic-led House is expected to vote on the referral — and approve it — on Tuesday. The Department of Justice would decide whether to prosecute Meadows.

This week, the panel is due to hear from another dozen witnesses or so, Thompson noted, bringing the count of those appearing before the committee to more than 300. The panel has also received more than 30,000 documents, and nearly 250 tips.

Meadows' defense

Earlier on Monday, Meadows, a former U.S. House member for North Carolina for more than seven years, said through his attorney that the committee's referral was unwise, unfair and contrary to law.

The remarks were part of a six-page letter attorney George Terwilliger sent to Thompson and Cheney.

Meadows and his attorney went on to argue that a criminal referral of a senior-most presidential adviser declining to testify before Congress would violate separation of powers principles.

"It would ill-serve the country to rush to judgment on the matter," Terwilliger said.

Last month, Meadows turned over documents and agreed to appear for the Dec. 8 deposition. But he reversed plans on Dec. 7, the day before his scheduled deposition.

Also last week, Meadows' book covering his time in the White House, The Chief's Chief, was released, complicating his claims he could not discuss certain conversations with the former president.

"The same book that goes into detail about matters the Select Committee is reviewing," Thompson said on Monday. "It also details conversations he had with President Trump and others — conversations we want to hear more about."

Meadows has also sued the committee in an effort to block enforcement of subpoenas it had issued.

At the heart of the disagreement is Meadows' claim that executive privilege, a legal shield that protects presidential communications, blocks him from cooperating. Trump directed Meadows after his Sept. 23 subpoena not to share certain documents or conversations as a result of the privilege claim.

However, President Biden waived executive privilege in Meadows' case, which supersedes any other claims, the committee argues. Executive privilege is also at the center of a Trump lawsuit, which could get taken up by the Supreme Court.

Thompson's message to Meadows, Bannon and Clark

Meadows is the third such referral case for the committee, following ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon and former Trump Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.

Thompson used Monday's meeting to send a message to the three subjects of the referral cases. (A full House vote for Clark's referral is on hold, as he's expected to assert the Fifth Amendment privilege at a committee appearance later this week.)

"And if you're listening at home, Mr. Meadows, Mr. Bannon, Mr. Clark, I want you to know this: History will be written about these times, about the work this committee has undertaken," Thompson said. "And history will not look upon any of you as a martyr."

Late Sunday, the committee released a 51-page contempt report on Meadows along with more than a dozen exhibits documenting the panel's exchanges with Meadows since he was among the first witnesses subpoenaed.

"Mark Randall Meadows is uniquely situated to provide critical information about the events of January 6, 2021, as well as efforts taken by public officials and private individuals to spread the message of widespread fraud in the November 2020 election and to delay or prevent the peaceful transfer of power," the report reads.

The report notes that during a short window when Meadows was cooperating, he turned over to the committee about 6,600 pages of records from his personal email accounts, plus about 2,000 personal text messages.

The committee said Meadows refused to provide testimony on the documents and a long list of interests for the panel.

In all, the panel said Meadows missed three scheduled deposition dates, in October, November and December.

Documents Meadows shared were previewed at the deposition he missed on Dec. 8

In a transcript of Meadows' missed Dec. 8 deposition, a senior committee staffer discusses topics of interest, previewing some of the documents Meadows shared, including a Jan. 5 email from Meadows that said the National Guard would "protect pro-Trump people" the next day.

The staffer said they also wanted to ask Meadows about his texts with congressional members starting in late 2020, including one exchange involving an unnamed senator regarding then-Vice President Mike Pence. In that instance, Meadows discussed Pence's power to reject election results, saying Trump ''thinks the legislators have the power, but the VP has power, too."

The panel said they also wanted to ask Meadows about Dec. 12 text messages with a media personality regarding the negative impact of Trump's election challenges on the Senate runoff elections in Georgia and his prospects for reelection in 2024, and Meadows' possible employment by an unnamed news channel.

Had Meadows appeared, many of his responses to questions on those topics were likely free of executive privilege claims, members of the committee have argued.

"We are disappointed in Mr. Meadows' failure to appear as planned, as it deprives the select committee of an opportunity to develop relevant information in Mr. Meadows' possession and to, more specifically, understand the contours of his executive privilege claim," the committee staffer said in the Dec. 8 deposition transcript.

The report also documents other areas of interest for the committee, including Meadows' trip to Georgia to observe an audit of presidential election results; claims of election fraud Meadows forwarded to Justice Department leaders; and text messages encouraging certain state Republicans to send alternate slates of electors.

The panel also documents a text from a rally organizer on Jan. 6 saying they needed direction because the event had turned "crazy," as well as Meadows' participation in a Dec. 18 meeting with Trump and others looking for ways to challenge the results, including seizing voting machines.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.