Now that Stephen K. Bannon has turned in his anger and vengeful to face criminal contempt of Congress charges, the Jan. 6 House Select Committee’s attention turns to Mark Meadows, President Trump’s former chief of staff. Meadows refused to turn over subpoenaed papers or show up for a scheduled hearing.
Based on the current war of words, Meadows is at odds with the committee and another criminal contempt referral has been made.
Committee member Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Meadows’ recalcitrance “pretty much forces our hand…. I’m confident we’ll move very quickly against Mr. Meadows.”
Meadows’ counsel, former Deputy Atty. Gen. George Terwilliger, wrote in the Washington Post last weekend that “the only path to resolution may run through the courts.”
On Tuesday, the committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) announced he’d sent a letter to Meadows: “We need these questions answered.”
But Meadows’ case is very different from Bannon’s. Both he and the committee have much to lose from a criminal referral. This suggests that they may still find a solution.
The major downside to criminal contempt charges against Meadows is that they would lose access to Meadows’ information and personal information. His alleged crime would be decided in federal courts. Until that case is resolved, which almost certainly would be after the effective lifetime of the Jan.6 committee, no one in Congress will be questioning Meadows. That was a price the committee was willing and able to bear with the ever-combative, garrulous Bannon. There are many public statements that he has made that the committee can use — remember his Jan. 5 podcast, “All hell is going be broken loose tomorrow”?
Not for Meadows, who tried to keep out of the public eye during the rampage. He is Trump’s primary minder at end and perhaps the most knowledgeable source on the former president’s movements. news reports indicate that Meadows may have been involved with the efforts to find Trump votes in Georgia, and in the planning of the rally that sparked off the Capitol conflagration. The House committee does not want Meadows’ evidence to be lost in a criminal proceeding.
The committee cannot predict the outcome of a criminal referral. It doesn’t have any information about the details that led to the department’s decision not to indict Bannon. Meadows’ communications to Trump, which were not Bannon’s, could be considered strong candidates under executive privilege protection. Meadows’ communications with Trump could be referred to the Justice Department by the committee. It is possible that the Justice Department will evaluate Meadows’ criminal intention differently than Bannon’s.
The Bannon indictment was a victory for Congress’ powers (and the rule law) of investigation after the Trump years in which congressional subpoenas had been casually and successfully ignored. A Meadows referral could make Congress look like a paper tiger if it came out the other direction.
If the committee has good reasons to avoid a criminal referral then Meadows is right. His demeanor is far from the pugilism of Bannon. He has nothing to lose by being an outlaw. He is not known to have the deep pockets to pay for federal court criminal defense. He hoped for a career in D.C.’s most important professional circles after his stint at the White House. These prospects would be destroyed if not completely destroyed if he was convicted of contempt of Congress.
It is possible that the committee may bring a civil contempt case against Meadows. If it could be done quickly and if it succeeded that would be a powerful option. Meadows would be sent to jail and remain there until he obeys the subpoena.
Unfortunately, until recently, Team Trump has been able to string along civil cases aimed at investigating the former president for a year or more, effectively taking the civil option off the table. The federal courts have moved at lightning speed (relatively) to review Trump’s case to reject the committee’s request for documents. Thompson and Co. cannot be certain of a swift civil contempt action. The committee could end up stuck in the same cycle of delay and stonewalling.
It is galling to think that Meadows may evade his legal responsibility to fulfill a congressional demand that is exceedingly important. Meadows and the committee are engaged in a game called chicken in which each side runs the risk of losing something very important — Meadows’ liberty and livelihood, and the committee’s critical testimony. Sometimes, games of chicken end with spectacular crashes. Sometimes, there is an outright winner. More often, the combatants diverge from an all or nothing outcome. You can expect something similar to this to happen here.