On Monday, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows took a legal swing for the fences by unexpectedly testifying in a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones. Meadows’ testimony went on for nearly five hours, during which time he described a view of his role so expansive it made everything he did—from lining up phone calls with false electors to trying to force his way into offices where votes were being counted—part of his official duties.
Meadows is seeking to get his indictment in the racketeering case against Donald Trump and his 18 co-conspirators moved from a Georgia state court to federal court. To do so, Meadows is counting on constitutional provisions that protect federal officials who are performing their duties against prosecution by state courts. Moving the case to the federal district court in northern Georgia might give Meadows a marginal improvement in terms of finding Trump-friendly jurors, but he has already made it clear this isn’t the end goal. Moving the case to federal court is a preliminary step before asking for dismissal of charges.
Putting Meadows on the stand at this point is extremely unusual because it allows him to be cross-examined, giving prosecutors the opportunity to address his defense strategy well in advance of the actual trial. Meadows and his legal team apparently thought this long-shot play was worth it. They were almost certainly wrong.
Most of Meadows’ time on the stand was spent walking through the incidents that were described in the RICO case assembled by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. This included multiple instances in which Meadows lined up calls or meetings with officials involved in tallying votes. It included Meadows' part in organizing false electors for Trump. It included Meadows involvement in multiple meetings in which strategies for overturning the election results were discussed. And it included Meadows making multiple attempts to get into a Georgia elections office where mail-order ballots were being evaluated and counted.
As CBS News reported, Meadows’ solution to at least two of the criminal acts cited in the indictment was simple enough: He claimed they never happened.
Act 19 of the indictment describes an incident in which Trump and Meadows met with Director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office John McEntee and “requested that McEntee prepare memorandum outlining strategy for disrupting and delaying the joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021,” including having Mike Pence “count only half of the electoral votes from certain states and then return the remaining electoral votes to state legislatures.”
Act 96 of the indictment describes Meadows “sending a text message to Office of the Georgia Secretary of State Chief Investigator Frances Watson that stated in part, ‘Is there way to speed up Fulton county signature verification in order to have results before Jan 6 if the trump campaign assist financially.’”
Meadows testified that he never asked “Johnny McEntee for this kind of a memo” and that he never sent such a text to investigator Watson … because he sent it to the Georgia secretary of state’s office instead. Presumably neither of these acts would have appeared on the indictment without both written and verbal evidence, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
However, the far more important feature of the hearing was how Meadows sought to explain all the things he admitted to doing. The things that fill a full 15 more acts of the indictment.
According to Meadows and his attorneys, all his other actions come down to two things: First, his role as chief of staff includes “broad-ranging duties to advise and assist the President” and one of those roles is to protect a “federal interest in ensuring accurate and fair elections.” If that description sounds like it includes permission for Meadows to do anything, and to interfere in elections as he pleases, it’s because that’s exactly what Meadows argued on the stand.
For Meadows, that means it was fine for him to both shoulder his way into a Georgia elections office “on his own initiative,” and to sit by as plans were made to seize voting machines using the military. All of it was, according to Meadows, performed as part of his official duty.
The problem with the duties Meadows lays out is that they are boundless. There’s nothing in any description of the chief of staff’s duties that includes trying to sneak a peek at mail-in ballots, or even Meadows’ vague “ensuring accurate and fair elections.” He’s creating a standard in which he can define his role, moment to moment, without concern over fixed limits.
That’s not going to fly.
For the most part, Jones was silent during Meadows long-running soliloquy, but he did speak up on a few points. As Reuters reports, those included asking if there was “any part of the U.S. Constitution that outlined a role for the president in administering state elections.” The answer there would be no. It would also be the heart of what Meadows argued for five hours.
Meadows and his attorneys are absolutely right in that the Constitution provides very broad protection of federal officials in the performance of their duties. But they’re dead wrong in suggesting that those duties can be redefined as they see fit to create a blanket exemption from state laws in all circumstances.
What Meadows did in Georgia, and elsewhere, following the 2020 election wasn’t work to support fair elections in the United States. It was work in the effort to promote the election of Donald Trump, regardless of the legality of the actions.
Allowing campaign efforts in favor of one candidate to become protected from state law would be extraordinarily dangerous. Very likely as dangerous as the conflict between state and federal laws that the supremacy clause of the Constitution was meant to prevent in the first place.
Meadows all but admitted to his role as a campaign staffer outright when he was questioned about his actions in both lining up and participating in the call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. According to Meadows, the call was made “to come to a less litigious resolution” of the Trump campaign’s lawsuit against the state. Asked by Assistant District Attorney Anna Cross what federal duty was being served in trying to settle a private lawsuit out of court by brokering an agreement with a state official, Meadows only repeated that his duties were “broad.”
Broad enough, apparently, to include efforts to evade legal settlements and seek an agreement outside the law to keep his favored candidate in power.
Here’s another big issue with Meadows' claim of seeking a “less litigious” solution: By the time of the Raffensperger call on Jan. 2, Trump had already filed and lost multiple lawsuits and appeals in Georgia. Raffensperger had also given Trump both a machine and a hand recount. Trump had tried to convince Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to reject the certification of votes—and lost. He had filed a claim of “massive voter fraud” in federal court—and lost.
In fact, by the time Trump was on the phone with Raffensperger, his campaign had already lost over 50 lawsuits in their attempt to halt the 2020 election in multiple states. The only thing still outstanding in Georgia was an appeal of his twice-failed efforts to decertify the results—an appeal made the day before Trump called Raffensperger. That appeal would be rejected three days later.
Trump had already failed repeatedly in court. Attacks on Raffensperger had been going on since the day after the election. Meadows was looking for a solution that wasn't so much “less litigious” as it was extra-legal.
That Meadows could find a definition of his role as chief of staff that included all his efforts to overturn the 2020 election always seemed unlikely, and the characterization that he provided on the witness stand was little short of ludicrous. Jones understands that he’s walking new legal ground in defining the bounds between actions required of a government official and actions taken in support of a campaign.
But it’s almost certain that Jones will draw that line well short of a position that provides Meadows a ticket out of Fulton County. The real question is whether he will do so in a way that just as clearly limits Trump’s efforts to make the same claims about his role.
We talk about the upcoming Republican presidential debate and how sad a situation it is. The Republican Party shot itself in the foot with a Trump-sized bullet, and now it’s stuck with him for the foreseeable future. We try to game out the possible paths the Republicans might take to rid themselves of The Donald.