The U.S. House voted Tuesday to hold former President Donald Trump’s last chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to testify in the Capitol insurrection probe, referring the matter to the Justice Department.
The 222 to 208 vote also aims to send a message to other Trump loyalists that the former president’s assertion of executive privilege will not deter the House committee charged with investigating the Jan. 6 siege. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has already been indicted for criminal contempt for refusing to testify to the panel and awaits trial in July.
Two Republicans voted with all Democrats to hold Meadows in contempt.
Meadows, who as a Republican member of the House from North Carolina was a rising conservative star and co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, is the highest-ranking former Trump official in legal jeopardy in the inquiry.
The House vote followed the bombshell release Monday night by the Jan. 6 committee of texts and emails members of Trump’s inner circle, Fox news hosts, members of Congress and others sent to Meadows urging he get the president to stop the riot.
“Why would all these people text the president of the United States and say you have to stop these people?” Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, the Jan. 6 committee’s chairman, said before the vote.
Thompson said the messages show people close to Trump believed the president had some connection to the assault on the Capitol and “our committee needs to figure out what those connections are.”
“There are a multitude questions we need to ask him,” the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming said of Meadows. Cheney, one of only two Republicans on the nine-member committee and its vice chair, pointed to evidence showing efforts by Trump and his allies to undermine the 2020 presidential election results and certification.
“I think there are real questions about what their plans were, what plans they were making on Jan. 6,” Cheney said.
Meadows gave the committee the texts and emails he received before, during and after the Capitol riot, as well as other records he deemed non-privileged that committee officials say number in the thousands. But Meadows last week refused to testify, citing executive privilege, and filed a lawsuit to block the committee’s subpoenas.
Thompson and other committee members dismissed Meadows’ legal argument as a mere distraction, saying he voided any executive privilege when he turned over the documents. Meadows, they also said, has written about some of these events in his new book.
“He also has a duty as an American citizen,” said Cheney, who was ousted from her GOP leadership position earlier this year over her criticism of Trump.
The committee’s arguments were bolstered last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously rejected an aspect of Trump’s claim that he can assert executive privilege with regard to White House documents.
Republicans denounced what they called overreach by Democrats.
“I hope the American people are paying close attention,” said Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana. “I hope they see what happens when Democrats get total power. They abuse it. They intimidate, they threaten, and they harass. They try to jail their political opponents.”
Neither Meadows nor his lawyer immediately commented on the House vote. But Meadows said Monday night on Fox News that “this is about Donald Trump and about actually going after him once again.”
Meadows said there’s never been any criminal intent on his part.
“Truly the executive privilege that Donald Trump has claimed is his to waive. It’s not mine to waive,” he said, adding that he filed the lawsuit “to get the courts to weigh in.”
During that interview, Fox News host Sean Hannity did not mention his own texts to Meadows during the riot, which Cheney made public Monday night.
“Can he make a statement? … Ask people to leave the Capitol,” Hannity urged in one text.
Even Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, texted Meadows during the riot pleading, “We need an Oval Office address. He has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand.”
Cheney revealed more texts Tuesday she said were sent to Meadows during the riot from Republican members of Congress, though she and other panel members have not identified the lawmakers. Those messages include such pleas as “It’s really bad up here on the hill,” and “The President needs to stop this asap,” and “Fix this now.”
“But Mr. Meadows has refused to give any testimony at all,” Cheney said.
The House vote marks a sharp turnaround for Meadows, who once led a panel on oversight and government reform, a position where he defended congressional subpoenas for information from the Obama administration.
Meadows “repeatedly through his career in Congress insisted that even high-ranking Executive Branch officials must comply with congressional subpoenas for documents, information and testimony,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat.
As Attorney General Merrick Garland and other officials weigh whether to prosecute, the legal case against Meadows differs from that of Bannon, who left the Trump administration in 2017. Meadows was Trump’s top aide when the riot took place, which could give his arguments of executive privilege more weight.
There are other potential show-downs looming between the committee and Trump loyalists, including Roger Stone and former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.
The committee started contempt action against Clark after he refused to answer questions. But his lawyer later said Clark would appear for a deposition to plead his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The committee said it would decide how to proceed then.
Stone has also told the committee through his lawyer he will not answer questions, and will plead the Fifth Amendment in an appearance later this week.
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