The US House of Representatives panel investigating the January 6 Capitol insurrection voted Monday (local time) to recommend contempt charges against former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows as lawmakers demand his testimony about then-President Donald Trump's actions before and during the attack.
"Whatever legacy he thought he left in the House, this is his legacy now," committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said of Meadows in his opening remarks. "His former colleagues singling him out for criminal prosecution because he wouldn't answer questions about what he knows about a brutal attack on our democracy. That's his legacy."
The committee voted 9-0 to move forward with criminal charges against Meadows, who declined to appear for a deposition last week. Lawmakers had planned to ask about Trump's efforts to overturn the election in the weeks before the insurrection, including Meadows' outreach to states and his communications with members of Congress.
Trump's former top White House aide "is uniquely situated to provide key information, having straddled an official role in the White House and unofficial role related to Mr Trump's reelection campaign," the panel said in a 51-page report released Sunday evening.
The report detailed the questions lawmakers have about the thousands of emails and texts Meadows had provided to the committee before he ended his cooperation — including 6,600 pages of records taken from personal email accounts and about 2,000 text messages.
The panel has not released all the documents, but the report says they include exchanges about Meadows efforts' to help Trump overturn his defeat in the presidential election, communications with members of Congress and organisers of a rally held the morning of the insurrection and frantic messages among aides and others as the violent attack unfolded that day.
Representative Liz Cheney, the committee's vice chair, detailed on Monday a series of text messages Meadows received on January 6 from a slew of people, including Fox News anchors and Donald Trump Jr. In the texts, allies and those in Trump's inner circle attempted to reach Trump through his chief of staff, imploring him to take action against the violence that was taking place outside and inside the Capitol.
"He's got to condemn this ... Asap," Trump Jr wrote. "The Capitol Police tweet is not enough." Meadows responded, saying, "I'm pushing it hard. I agree."
"Hey Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home ... this is hurting all of us ... he is destroying his legacy," Fox News host Laura Ingraham texted Meadows.
"Please get him on TV. Destroying everything you have accomplished," Brian Kilmeade wrote.
As part of its list of questions for Meadows, the panel says it wants to know more about whether Trump was engaged in discussions regarding the response of the National Guard, which was delayed for hours as the violence escalated and the rioters beat police guarding the Capitol building.
The documents provided by Meadows include an email he sent to an unidentified person saying that the Guard would be present to "protect pro Trump people," the panel said, and that more would be available on standby. The committee did not release any additional details about the email.
The contempt vote is coming after more than two months of negotiations with Meadows and his lawyer and as the panel has also struggled to obtain information from some of Trump's other top aides, such as his longtime ally Steve Bannon. The House voted to recommend charges against Bannon in October, and the Justice Department indicted him on two counts of contempt last month.
The panel is aiming to develop the most comprehensive record yet of the attack, in which hundreds of Trump's supporters forced their way past law enforcement officers, broke into the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden's victory. Meadows' testimony could be key, as he was Trump's top aide at the time and was with him in the White House as the rioters breached the Capitol building.
In a Monday letter to Thompson, Meadows' attorney George Terwilliger said the contempt vote would be "unjust" because Meadows was one of Trump's top aides and all presidents should be afforded executive privilege to shield their private conversations. Meadows himself sued the panel, asking a court to invalidate two subpoenas that he says are "overly broad and unduly burdensome".
Terwilliger noted that the contempt statute has been used infrequently over time and argued that a contempt referral of a senior presidential aide "would do great damage to the institution of the Presidency".
In a transcript of the deposition that Meadows skipped, released as part of Sunday's report, an unnamed member of the panel's investigative staff detailed several of the questions he would have been asked had he shown up.
Many of the questions centre on Trump's efforts to overturn the election in the weeks before the insurrection, including Meadows' outreach to states and his communications with members of Congress.
Committee staff said they would have interviewed Meadows about emails "to leadership at the Department of Justice on December 29th and 30th, 2020, and January 1st, 2021, encouraging investigations of suspected voter fraud," even though election officials and courts across the country had rejected those claims.
The panel said Meadows also provided text messages sent to and from members of Congress "before, during, and after the attack on the United States Capitol." One exchange with a lawmaker concerned efforts to contact legislators in states, too, about the election because Trump "wants to chat with them".
In a text exchange with an unidentified senator, the committee said, Meadows said Trump believed Vice President Mike Pence had power to reject electors in his role presiding over the January 6 certification. Pence did not have that power under the law, as the vice president's function is largely ceremonial.
A November 6, 2020, text exchange between Meadows and an unidentified member of Congress, the committee said, was about appointing alternate electors in certain states, a plan the member said would be "highly controversial". The committee said that Meadows replied, "I love it.'"
In other texts, sent the day of the attack, Meadows' former colleagues encouraged him to urge Trump to discourage the violence, the committee said. Similarly, in an exchange with an organiser of the rally that morning — a gathering in which Trump told his supporters to "fight like hell" — the organiser told Meadows that they "desperately" needed direction from him because things "have gotten crazy".
The panel's expected vote to recommend charges of contempt of Congress would send the referral to the full House, which could vote as soon as this week to send it to the Justice Department. The department would then decide whether to prosecute.
Thompson and the committee's Republican vice chairwoman, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, said last week that Meadows' lawsuit "won't succeed at slowing down the Select Committee's investigation or stopping us from getting the information we're seeking".
The panel has already interviewed almost 300 witnesses, and lawmakers say they plan a series of hearings early next year to make many of their findings public.