(CNN)The House of Representatives staked out a dramatic new defense of democracy by citing Mark Meadows for criminal contempt over his refusal to testify about Donald Trump’s coup attempt on January 6.
The move against the former White House chief of staff Tuesday was the latest effort to penetrate the inner circle of an ex-President who watched the US Capitol come under attack by a mob incited by his plot to overturn a fair election. But it also showed how the House select committee investigating the assault is now taking on a far more important role than simply documenting a day that will live in infamy. It has become a vital protagonist in the battle to save American democracy in the run-up to a presidential election in which Trump may try to reclaim power, through nefarious means if necessary.
The contempt referral to the Justice Department, following an earlier similar citation against Trump’s ex-political guru Steve Bannon, reflects growing momentum for the committee, which has called more than 300 witnesses to offer testimony and evidence. The investigation clearly has hidden depths. A flurry of texts to Meadows released by the panel, documenting panicked lawmakers, Fox News anchors and other members of the media, and even Trump’s own son imploring him to call off the insurrection, hint at a mound of evidence collected but not yet made public. Not only does this trove apparently depict Trump’s own dereliction of duty in defending lawmakers and the Constitution, it shows that those around the ex-President knew the damage he was doing in real time — though later tried to whitewash the truth.
By exposing such duplicity, the committee is also building a picture of the cowardice, dishonesty and for-profit propagandizing by media personalities and Republican lawmakers bought into Trump’s personality cult, which shored up the twice-impeached President during multiple assaults on the Constitution while he was in office. The same „Make America Great Again” industrial complex is now powering Trump’s preparations for a new presidential run, which could threaten American political traditions even more seriously in 2024.
The committee is racing against time, since Republicans will close it down if they win back the House in 2022. And it remains unclear whether voters will be swayed by learning the full, terrible truth about what happened on January 6 when they vote in midterm elections next year and in three years for president.
Many other issues, including soaring inflation and a pandemic with no end in sight, rightly preoccupy Americans. A recent gubernatorial election in Virginia, in which Republicans prevailed by concentrating on education and the economy, suggested that fear of Trump is waning as a motivating factor at the ballot box. And democracy is often not a tangible commodity: The history of rising autocracy abroad suggests it’s often not noticed until it’s gone. Suggestions, meanwhile, the committee could even refer Trump for criminal charges, rooted partly in remarks by Republican Vice Chair Liz Cheney this week, still seem at the most daring end of the panel’s possible options.
But as it builds a picture of what happened 11 months ago, the committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans who broke with the ex-President’s cult, is also laying bare the character of Trump world. In that sense, its probe into a historic event is becoming perhaps the most important forward-looking weapon in a growing struggle to preserve democracy from the threat the ex-President still poses.
„How we address January 6 is the moral test of our generation,” Cheney, one of the few House Republicans to tell the truth about Trump’s crimes against the Constitution, said before the vote to refer Meadows to the Justice Department for possible criminal action.
With the exception of Cheney and fellow GOP committee member Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the House voted on largely party lines to hold Meadows in contempt for backing out of offering testimony to the committee after providing thousands of pages of evidence including emails and text exchanges.
Some of those messages show that he was inundated with calls by some of Trump’s closest allies for the then-President to intervene during the insurrection. But Trump refused to do so for 187 minutes.
In one exchange, the ex-President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., told Meadows as the violence raged that his father needed to „condemn this sh*t ASAP,” according to Cheney on Monday.
In another message Cheney read, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham, who later misled viewers about the true nature of the insurrection, wrote: „Mark, the President needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
On the face of it, Meadows is in a far stronger position than Bannon, who was not serving as a White House official at the time of the insurrection, to avoid testifying before the committee by asserting executive privilege, the tradition that presidents have an expectation of privacy in consultations with key aides. And there is no official closer to a president than the chief of staff.
But the committee has argued that while it wanted broad testimony from Meadows, some of its requests were clearly not covered by executive privilege, especially since Meadows already turned over many of the documents they want to ask him about. And the panel says that the question of executive privilege does not arise uniformly since it wants to talk to Meadows about episodes that don’t always involve Trump — like any interactions he had, for instance, with Republican officials in Georgia who were pressured by Trump to overthrow Biden’s election win in the key swing state.
In a new disclosure on Tuesday, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren revealed a text sent from an unnamed election official from the Peach State to Meadows as Trump leaned on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. „Need to end this call,” the official said, according to Lofgren.
Republicans have countered, however, that Trump’s prerogative to assert executive privilege as a former president has still not been fully tested at the Supreme Court and that the committee was, therefore, overstepping its bounds with its contempt of Congress vote.
But that argument from Trump allies is undermined by the fact that Meadows is apparently refusing to discuss events he already depicted in his new book. One committee member, Rep. Adam Schiff, argued that if Congress could not enforce its subpoena against Meadows, its future capacity to check an overreaching executive branch would be neutered.
„No one is above the law,” the California Democrat said.
Some Trump allies in the House, including some suspected of being in contact with him on January 6, turned the tables to argue that the abuses of power were actually being committed by those investigating the insurrection — a flipping-of-the-script strategy perfected by the former President.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, for instance, described the job of the White House chief of staff as „the closest of the close” in relation to the president and said it was in the „public’s interest” for Meadows’ dealings with Trump to be kept secret. Yet the then-chief of staff was not consulting Trump on a vital national security crisis or a national disaster. He was at his side when one of the worst assaults on America’s political freedoms in generations was being perpetrated — arguably a far greater threat to the public interest than breaching the custom of presidential confidentiality.
Another committee member, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, accused Meadows of changing his mind about cooperating with the committee only after incurring the fury of Trump over his memoir, which was released earlier this month.
„He called his own book fake news, which is a pretty devastating review to render on your own book,” Raskin said in a House floor debate on Tuesday.
Meadows, a former congressman from North Carolina who, despite his staunch conservatism sometimes worked across the aisle, is the latest Trump acolyte to discover the choices and the consequences inherent in joining the former President’s orbit.
Multiple members of the Trump circle have been forced to decide between appeasing and abetting their boss’ aberrant behavior and constitutional vandalism and their own reputations. Some, like Meadows, have faced the threat of criminal action as a result. Others, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have soiled their own considerable political legacies by embracing Trump’s anti-democratic crusade. Several former campaign officials convicted during the Mueller probe spent time in jail because of their association with a boss who always tests the rule of law.
The hypocrisy of Fox News personalities, who pleaded with Meadows to end the insurrection in private but were unwilling to argue a similar line to their viewers, reveals they were loath to squander their ratings power and prominence with the former President’s loyal base. Leading officials like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who once said Trump bore responsibility for the Capitol riot but then backtracked, know their chances of future power hinge on his patronage. McCarthy’s quest to be speaker if Republicans win the House in 2022 is already in question as Trump’s allies warn his obeisance to the former President is insufficiently fervent, despite his extensive efforts to ensure impunity for the coup attempt.
With this in mind, the committee is uncovering not only Trump’s transgressions in a historic purge against bedrock American political values, but evidence of his enduring power in the Republican Party and among his compliant, propagandistic conservative media enablers. It’s underscoring the fact that far from ending on January 6, the threat to democracy that Trump represents builds by the day.
Voters may decide that this is all insufficient to disqualify the former President from another tilt at the White House. But they won’t be able to say they weren’t warned.