U.S. House finds ex-Trump chief of staff Meadows in contempt, seeks prosecution

U.S. President Donald Trump departs with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows from the White House to travel to North Carolina for an election rally, in Washington, U.S., October 21, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago/File Photo

WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Former President Donald Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, could face criminal prosecution for refusing to cooperate fully with a probe into the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, after the House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to hold him in contempt of Congress.

The Democratic-led chamber voted 222 to 208, with just two Republicans joining Democrats to recommend the charges against Meadows, who served in the House before joining the Republican president's administration last year.

The Department of Justice will now decide whether to pursue charges. A conviction on the charge carries up to a year in prison.

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The seven Democrats and two Republicans on the Select Committee investigating the attack voted unanimously on Monday evening to recommend that the full House approve its report appealing for a contempt of Congress charge against Meadows.

The two Republicans on the Jan. 6 committee, Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, were the only two Republicans who backed the resolution recommending the charges.

The charges against Meadows relate mainly to his refusal to honor a subpoena seeking his testimony about messages and other communications that he has turned over to the panel.

Cheney, the panel's vice chairwoman, read out panicked text messages from unidentified lawmakers and others pleading with Meadows on Jan. 6 to urge Trump to appear publicly and call off his followers. The texts surfaced during the Select Committee's investigation.

"He's got to condemn this shit ASAP. We need an Oval Office address," Trump's son Donald Jr. said in one text. In others, conservative media hosts made similar private pleas to Meadows - before playing down the violence of the attack on the air.

"The American people deserve to know all of the steps that Donald Trump and those around him and that his campaign were taking in an effort to change the results of the election," Cheney said.

Trump repeated his false claim at a rally on Jan. 6 that his defeat by Democratic President Joe Biden in the November 2020 election was the result of widespread fraud, and urged his supporters to march on the Capitol as Congress gathered to certify Biden's victory. Biden took office on Jan. 20.

Four people died on the day of the riot, and one Capitol police officer died the next day of injuries sustained while defending Congress. Hundreds of police were injured during the multi-hour onslaught by Trump supporters, and four officers have since taken their own lives.

The city of Washington on Tuesday sued two right-wing groups for the financial costs associated with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.


Republican Representative Tom Cole argued it was too early for a contempt recommendation, given lawsuits filed by Trump and Meadows himself arguing that the former president's communications should be protected by executive privilege and that committee subpoenas are too broad.

"Today's action is wildly premature," Cole said. Cole was one of the dozens of Republicans who voted against certifying Biden's election on Jan. 6 in the hours after the assault on the Capitol.

Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Select Committee, said the panel viewed the lawsuits as delaying tactics. "When a witness defies the law, that amounts to more than obstructing our investigation, it's an attack on the rule of law," he said in remarks urging support for the resolution citing Meadows.

Meadows' attorney, George Terwilliger, said in a statement on Tuesday that his client had not stopped cooperating.

"He has maintained consistently that as a former chief of staff he cannot be compelled to appear for questioning and that he as a witness is not licensed to waive executive privilege claimed by the former president," Terwilliger said.

A federal appeals court last week rejected Trump's request to withhold documents because of executive privilege, noting that Biden, as president, has already authorized their release.

"Both branches agree that there is a unique legislative need for these documents and that they are directly relevant to the Committee’s inquiry into an attack on the legislative branch and its constitutional role in the peaceful transfer of power," the court said.

Meadows could become the third Trump associate to face a criminal contempt charge. The Justice Department, at the House's request, has brought similar charges against Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. The House is considering similar action against former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.

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Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Lincoln Feast.

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