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The House votes to hold Mark Meadows in contempt, sending a criminal referral to DOJ

If the Department of Justice decides to pursue a prosecution in the case, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows could face up a year in jail for each count of contempt of Congress.
Patrick Semansky
If the Department of Justice decides to pursue a prosecution in the case, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows could face up a year in jail for each count of contempt of Congress.

A day after lawmakers shared an explosive series of text messages sent to Mark Meadows during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, the Democratic-led U.S. House voted to hold the former Trump White House chief of staff in criminal contempt of Congress.

The Tuesday evening vote, cast almost completely along party lines, triggers a series of steps to send the referral to the U.S. attorney's office, leaving the Justice Department to decide whether it will pursue a prosecution in the case.

If so, Meadows could face up a year in jail for each contempt, plus fines.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the select committee investigating the Capitol riot, said Tuesday that it was a "difficult matter" to move forward with the referral, especially as Meadows is a veteran House member from North Carolina.

But as a former lawmaker, Meadows should have been more aware of the consequences for defying a subpoena, Thompson argued.

"There was a steady stream of communication between certain members of Congress and Mr. Meadows about matters central to our investigation," Thompson said on the House floor ahead of the vote. "We have questions about those communications. We will pursue those questions and we won't let the facts be buried by a coverup."

Most Republicans who spoke on the House floor Tuesday rejected the committee's claims, saying it was an illustration of a partisan attack tied to former President Donald Trump.

"Mark Meadows is our former colleague, he is a good man and he is my friend," said Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan. "This is as wrong as it gets. You all know it. But your lust for power, your lust to get your opponents is so intense, you don't care."

Meadows initially cooperated with the panel, turning over thousands of private emails and text messages, but reversed course last week. A day before he was due to appear for a Dec. 8 deposition, Meadows said he would no longer be cooperating, triggering the committee's criminal referral process.

"How we address Jan. 6 is the moral test of our generation," the panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in floor debate. "It is very sad to see how my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are addressing this issue. Mr. Meadows has refused to testify about non-privileged material, he is contempt."

On Monday, Cheney shared a litany of text messages she said Meadows received during the Jan. 6 siege. From Fox News personalities to Donald Trump Jr., they all urged Meadows to get then-President Trump to end the violence, she said.

On Tuesday, she read another series of text messages sent by unnamed Republican lawmakers to Meadows:

"It's really bad up here on the Hill," read one message, Cheney said.

"The president needs to stop this ASAP," read another, she said.

"Fix this now," Cheney read of yet another Republican member text message to Meadows.

During floor debate, additional select panel members read more text messages from unnamed lawmakers to Meadows, including one saying they needed an "aggressive strategy" to overturn the election results.

Thompson told reporters earlier on Tuesday that the lawmakers in the messages may be identified later, and didn't rule out potential discussions with them at a later date.

"At some point they will be [named], but it's a little premature to do it right now," he said.

Thompson has noted that of the more than 300 witnesses who have appeared before the panel so far, three were the targets of subpoenas issued by the committee. The committee has issued more than 50 subpoenas.

Additionally, the panel has also received more than 30,000 documents, and nearly 250 tips, Thompson has noted.

Meadows' defense

On Tuesday, Meadows, through his attorney, rejected claims he "stopped cooperating." Attorney George Terwilliger said in a statement that Meadows could not appear before the panel and violate executive privilege claims retained by Trump.

"He has fully cooperated as to documents in his possession that are not privileged and has sought various means to provide other information while continuing to honor the former president's privilege claims," Terwillger said in a statement.

Terwilliger noted the committee's use of personal messages Meadows turned over to the panel as part of a larger effort to pursue a contempt referral against him. "What message does that duplicity send to him as well as to others who might be inclined to consider cooperating in good faith to the extent possible?" Terwilliger argued.

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

President Biden waived executive privilege in Meadows' case, which supersedes any other claims, the committee argues. The issue of executive privilege is also at the center of a Trump lawsuit, which the former president hopes will be heard by the Supreme Court after losing a ruling before an appellate court.

Meadows' book covering his time in the White House, The Chief's Chief, was released last week, complicating his executive privilege claims.

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.

The report noted 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.

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

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