The chairman of the House select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol Hill riot told reporters Tuesday he is signing a letter by the end of the day to send to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows outlining everything the committee wants to learn from him, as the panel weighs whether to pursue another criminal contempt referral.
Asked by CNN what will be in the letter, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said, “Basically repeating what we’ve been saying all along. We need these questions answered. We’ve given you an opportunity on several occasions for you to be responsive and you’ve not done it.”
This letter would be key to marking the trail of communication between Meadows and the committee, and crucial to building out an eventual criminal contempt referral report, if the committee chooses to go that route.
Thompson said that part of the calculation in waiting to pursue a criminal contempt referral for Meadows is based on guidance from the panel’s lawyers.
“On the advice of counsel, we want to be able to indicate that we’ve made the best good faith effort we can to get this information,” Thompson said.
“Out of an abundance of giving people an opportunity, we won’t rush there,” Thompson later added.
The committee has been weighing its options for how to move forward with Meadows since tensions escalated when he did not appear for a deposition last week, setting up a potential showdown that could lead the panel to pursue a criminal referral.
Despite Thompson calling the decision a “work in progress,” he was clear that the engagement from Meadows is not up to the standards the committee needs and that if and when it does pursue a criminal contempt referral the case will be on “sound footing.”
“We have had subsequent communication with Meadows, but it has not given the committee or staff any information from him. So we’ve made the query, talking to him, saying this is what we want. We haven’t gotten anything,” Thompson said. “He hasn’t answered any questions.”
What the committee wants to know about Meadows and his cell phone
A key question that the committee has said it wants answered by Meadows is whether he was using a private cell phone to communicate on January 6 and where his text messages from that day are.
“We have information that that phone may or may not be in his possession,” Thompson said. “The number is not active anymore that he used. So we just want to know.”
When pressed by CNN where the committee had learned that information, whether it was from interviews or documents on file with the committee, Thompson would not specify and simply said, “That’s the committee’s information.”
Ahead of the scheduled deposition last week, Meadows’ attorney, George J. Terwilliger III, issued a statement saying that his client would not cooperate with the committee because the courts had not yet ruled on former President Donald Trump’s claims of executive privilege, noting “a sharp legal dispute with the committee.”
Thompson and panel Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, have said that Meadows’ defiance of his subpoena would “force the Select Committee to consider pursuing contempt or other proceedings to enforce the subpoena.” But there are issues that need to be settled that are unique to Meadows’ situation and could be more complicated than referring a contempt charge against Steve Bannon, who appeared in federal court on Monday after having been indicted by a grand jury and is scheduled to be arraigned on two misdemeanor charges on Thursday.
Unlike Bannon, Meadows was an employee of the executive branch on January 6, making his claims around executive privilege potentially more substantial.
To Thompson, however, if Meadows used a private phone on January 6, his claims of being protected by executive privilege are less firm.
“If in fact he used a personal phone rather than a government phone while he was serving as chief of staff, that limits his argument that he’s protected,” Thompson said.
Thompson along with Cheney also rejected outright the argument that Meadows can claim executive privilege.
“It’s important to note that there’s nothing extraordinary about the Select Committee seeking the cooperation of a former senior administration official,” the pair said in a joint statement last week after Meadows did not appear for his deposition. “Throughout US history, the White House has provided Congress with testimony and information when it has been in the public interest. There couldn’t be a more compelling public interest than getting answers about an attack on our democracy.”
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the committee, also argued that the unwillingness of the Biden administration to assert privilege makes it even more difficult for Bannon to claim that protection.
“Remember that … the President of the United States has not asserted executive privilege with respect to any of these materials, and that is almost certainly controlling and decisive in every particular case,” Raskin told CNN.
“The executive privilege doesn’t belong even to the current occupant of the White House. It belongs to the presidency and the executive branch itself. Much less, it does not belong to a former occupant of the presidency who’s trying to hide his involvement in an attempted coup and a violent insurrection against the government. So that would stretch the bounds of executive privilege beyond any credulity.”
Committee ‘still discussing’ how to handle Jeffrey Clark
Meadows is not the only high priority target not fully cooperating with the committee who members are weighing how to move forward on. Thompson told reporters on Tuesday that the committee is “still discussing” the next steps on former Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark, who came in for a deposition earlier this month but did not cooperate.
At the time, Thompson and Cheney issued a strong statement saying that Clark had to change course or they’d have to “take strong measures to hold him accountable.”
Thompson said of both Meadows and Clark, “those are the two prime individuals that we are engaging the committee with.”
Asked if there was a calculus behind who the committee would move forward on first, Thompson said, “We have not put them in a pecking order. We’ll discuss them in terms of the merits of each one. They both have merits.”
The challenge of the calendar
As the committee continues to deliberate how to proceed on each of these top priority witnesses, Thompson admitted that the calendar presents a logistical challenge.
“Our challenge is to get on the legislative calendar,” Thompson said, pointing to major legislation that is taking priority on the floor right now including President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, and after the Thanksgiving break, the deadline next month to fund the government and extend the nation’s debt limit.
“So it’s a matter of finding the space to include it because we have to obviously go to the speaker, get the speaker’s approval, then we have to get rules and ultimately time on the floor,” he added.
And with members scheduled to be in town only until Friday before they return to their districts in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, Thompson all but eliminated the possibility of movement on either Meadows or Clark this week given the multi-step process a criminal contempt referral entails.
“If the goal is to try and get the Build Back Better legislation out this week, I just think the calendar will just not allow it,” he said, referencing House Democrats’ plan to pass a $1.9 trillion social safety net bill as soon as this week.
More subpoenas and interviews to come
But as looming fights over criminal contempt referrals hang in the balance, Thompson said that he expects the committee to release more subpoenas this week as it continues its investigation, even though he would not specify what orbit these subpoenas would target.
And the committee continues its work behind closed doors.
Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who serves on the panel, said on CNN on Tuesday night that the committee has now heard from 200 witnesses, received nearly 25,000 documents and gotten more than 200 tips from its tip line.