Facing contempt charges, Meadows sues to block Jan. 6 panel's subpoenas

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In the face of possible criminal charges for contempt of Congress, Mark Meadows is now suing the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in an attempt to block the panel’s subpoenas.

Meadows, who served as former President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, filed the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Washington against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Jan. 6 committee and each of its members. In addition to the subpoena that Meadows himself received from the panel, the suit also seeks to block a subpoena compelling Verizon to provide the committee with his personal cellphone records.

“Mr. Meadows faces the harm of ... being illegally coerced into violating the Constitution,” reads the lawsuit, which argues that the committee’s “overly broad and unduly burdensome subpoenas” violate Meadows’s right to free speech as well as his former boss’s powers of executive privilege.

Mark Meadows.
Mark Meadows, then chief of staff, outside the White House in October 2020. (Oliver Contreras/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Meadows filed the lawsuit hours after he failed to appear for a scheduled deposition with the Jan. 6 committee on Wednesday, prompting the panel to say it would move ahead with the process of holding him in criminal contempt of Congress for defying its subpoena.

In a statement Wednesday evening, committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., called the lawsuit “flawed” and said it “won’t succeed at slowing down the Select Committee’s investigation or stopping us from getting the information we’re seeking.”

“The Select Committee will meet next week to advance a report recommending that the House cite Mr. Meadows for contempt of Congress and refer him to the Department of Justice for prosecution,” Thompson and Cheney said in their statement.

Donald Trump and Mark Meadows.
Trump and Meadows at the White House in May 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The lawsuit and looming contempt referral are the latest moves in what has been a tumultuous back-and-forth between Meadows and House investigators.

Meadows, who was White House chief of staff during Trump’s last year in office, is believed to have been involved in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, including plans to delay the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory on Jan. 6. The select committee subpoenaed Meadows in September for information related to those efforts as well as Trump’s activities on Jan. 6, as hundreds of his supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, injuring more than 140 police officers and forcing lawmakers and staffers to run for cover.

After failing to produce the requested documents and testimony by the panel’s initial deadline in October, Meadows temporarily dodged a referral for contempt charges last week by agreeing to cooperate with the House probe. But by Tuesday the deal had soured; Meadows’s attorney notified the committee that he would now “decline the opportunity to appear voluntarily for a deposition,” citing the panel’s apparent intent to question Meadows about subjects that he believes are covered by the former president’s claims of executive privilege.

“Over the last several weeks, Mr. Meadows has consistently sought in good faith to pursue an accommodation with the Select Committee,” Meadows’s attorney George Terwilliger wrote in a letter to Thompson and Cheney on Tuesday. “We acted on the belief that the Select Committee would receive, also in good faith, relevant, responsive but non-privileged facts.”

In response, Thompson and Cheney issued a statement Tuesday afternoon warning that “if indeed Mr. Meadows refuses to appear, the Select Committee will be left no choice but to advance contempt proceedings and recommend that the body in which Mr. Meadows once served refer him for criminal prosecution.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson and Rep. Liz Cheney.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, with Rep. Liz Cheney during a meeting of the panel. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

President Biden has thus far waived executive privilege for records relevant to the committee’s investigation, and a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled that Biden’s authority in this matter supersedes Trump’s, a position the select committee has adopted even as Trump seeks to have it reversed by a federal appeals court.

“Even as we litigate privilege issues, the Select Committee has numerous questions for Mr. Meadows about records he has turned over to the Committee with no claim of privilege, which include real-time communications with many individuals as the events of January 6th unfolded,” read the statement from Thompson and Cheney.

In a letter to Terwilliger on Tuesday, Thompson disputed the argument that the committee was mostly planning to ask Meadows about privileged information, pointing to a number of specific records he’d already turned over without a claim of privilege that had raised questions for the panel.

“These documents include: a November 7, 2020, email discussing the appointment of alternate slates of electors as part of a ‘direct and collateral attack’ after the election; a January 5, 2021, email regarding a 38-page PowerPoint briefing titled 'Election Fraud, Foreign Interference & Options for 6 JAN' that was to be provided 'on the hill'; and, among others, a January 5, 2021, email about having the National Guard on standby,” read Thompson's letter.

Thompson also expressed interest in several text messages produced from Meadows’s personal cellphone records, including “a November 6, 2020, exchange with a Member of Congress apparently about appointing alternate electors in certain states as part of a plan that the Member acknowledged would be ‘highly controversial’ and to which Mr. Meadows apparently said, ‘I love it’; an early January 2021 text message exchange between Mr. Meadows and an organizer of the January 6th rally on the Ellipse; and text messages about the need for the former President to issue a public statement that could have stopped the January 6th attack on the Capitol.”

According to the letter from Thompson, in addition to those and other records, Terwilliger provided the committee with privilege logs indicating that he withheld several hundred additional documents from Meadows’s private email account and more than a thousand text messages from his personal cellphone based on “broad claims of executive, attorney-client, and other privileges.”

Trump supporters at a rally in Washington, D.C.
Trump supporters at a rally on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., before the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol. (John Minchillo/AP)

Thompson also pointed out that Meadows writes about the events of Jan. 6 in his new book, “The Chief’s Chief,” which went on sale Tuesday.

“That he would sell his telling of the facts of that day while denying a congressional committee the opportunity to ask him about the attack on our Capitol marks an historic and aggressive defiance of Congress,” Thompson wrote.

In the book, Meadows writes that just “a handful of fanatics” are to blame for the attack, and disputes critics who have accused Trump of encouraging his supporters to engage in violence at a rally near the White House shortly before the riot unfolded. He writes that Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, when he told supporters to “fight like hell,” was “more subdued than usual,” and he claims that Trump was “speaking metaphorically” when he said he would join the crowd in marching on the Capitol to “cheer on” Republicans objecting to the Electoral College results. Some of the rioters have said they decided to march on the Capitol in part because of Trump’s pledge to go with them.

Mark Meadows gives a thumbs-up sign at a rally.
Meadows at a “Make America Great Again” rally in Greenville, N.C., in October 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Meadows is the third Trump ally to face a referral from the select committee for possible criminal penalties for refusing to cooperate with the probe.

In November, a federal grand jury indicted Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon after he used the executive privilege excuse for defying his own subpoena from the select committee. At a court appearance in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, the judge overseeing Bannon’s contempt case set the date for his criminal trial to begin next July 18.

Last week the panel voted to hold Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official who reportedly helped Trump try to upend the election, in contempt of Congress for doing the same thing. The process of referring Clark to the Justice Department was temporarily put on hold after his attorney notified the committee that Clark intends to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.