In a vote of 222–208 on Tuesday night, the House of Representatives did something it hasn’t done since the 1830s: It voted to hold one of its former members in contempt of Congress.
The ex–House member was, of course, former Trump administration Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, whom Congress cited for failing to fully comply with the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capitol. The charge underscores the increasing stakes of the committee’s mission as the panel digs deeper into the mob attack on the Capitol and the efforts by Trump allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The contempt vote came after an extraordinary presentation by Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the vice chairwoman of the Select Committee, on Monday night, revealing new findings by the committee. Cheney’s presentation included text messages to Meadows from Donald Trump Jr., Republican members of Congress, and prominent Fox News hosts, among others, all pleading for the president to do more to stop Republican lawmakers’ efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and convince the mob to retreat from the Capitol.
But for 187 minutes, Cheney noted, no action by the president was taken. The presentation moved a specific question to the center of the committee’s investigation. Cheney asked: “Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes?”
It’s an important question because it directly raises, for the first time, the possibility of criminal behavior on Trump’s part. It’s one that at times seemed might have been out of reach of the committee as its members kept most of their progress out of public view. As a result, all that’s been left for the public to see for months has been battles with Trump’s most famous aides over whether they were cooperating with the committee. Steve Bannon, Jeffrey Clark, and Meadows continued to refuse to testify before it.
There have been times when it seemed like the committee might not find anything impactful—or that the stalling efforts of the big-name Trump aides under its scrutiny might actually completely trip up the committee and succeed in running out the clock until the midterms. Veterans of congressional investigative committees still warn that the committee’s strength and influence will almost certainly be scaled back or undercut completely in the very likely scenario that control of the House of Representatives switches to Republicans after the midterms.
Congress does change hands and their work isn’t done, it gets lost. It’s gone,”
said Keith Ashdown, a former chief investigator for the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs
But for the moment the advantage is actually with the committee. There’s not much more the high-profile Trumpian holdouts can do other than stall, Ashdown said. The committee still enjoys broad subpoena power and the possibility of punishment for those who defy those subpoenas, as was demonstrated on Tuesday. “The targets don’t have too many cards, and it looks like they’re putting those out as their ace,” Ashdown said.
What’s become increasingly apparent over the last few weeks—and days, in particular—is that the committee has been able to obtain and compile important information about the mob attack at the Capitol and the moves by various members of the Trump administration to undermine the certification of the 2020 election results.
Over the past few months, the committee has been able get a 36-page PowerPoint presentation that laid out a series of steps to undercut the election, 9,000 pages from Meadows himself that committee member Congressman Jamie Raskin described as having “extraordinary relevance,” and a trove of text messages from Meadows and others underscoring how aware various conservative figures were of the severity of the mob attack and the moves Republicans took to prevent certification of Biden’s win.
The committee has revealed what it says is a fraction of its findings. One of the text messages Cheney publicized Monday was of Meadows responding to the calls for him to convince Trump to tell his supporters to leave the Capitol. Meadows, in that message, said, “I’m pushing it hard. I agree.”
Democratic Congressman Pete Aguilar, another member of the committee, during a speech on the House floor on Tuesday, displayed another message from Meadows that read, “He thinks the legislatures have the power but that the Vp has power too.” Presumably the “he” is in reference to Donald Trump himself.
The committee also revealed another text from an unnamed member of Congress saying, “yesterday was a terrible day. We tried everything we could in our objection to the 6 states. I’m sorry nothing worked.” It’s not clear who the member of Congress is, and the committee members have refrained from revealing that so far.
The texts were damning and also revealing in the extent to which Meadows and other Trump allies were aware of the seriousness of the mob attack and in the moves they were taking to try and reverse the election results. It’s clear to the committee, and now the public, that they knew they were playing with fire.
“We’ve got the committee coming up with some good information, there’s no doubt about that,” said Walter Shaub, the former director of the United States Office of Government Ethics and a senior ethics fellow at the Project on Government Oversight.
Even with the most well-known Trump allies, like Bannon, John Eastman, and Meadows doing everything they can to defy the committee, this week has made clear that the committee is making serious progress.
The vote on Tuesday evening moves the investigation into a new phase. The committee has now shown on multiple occasions that it is not afraid to initiate a contempt of Congress charge with people of interest who refuse to cooperate.
What’s less obvious but no less significant is that for every high-profile former Trump aide defying the committee, the panel has still made progress in collecting valuable information, including evidence suggesting that Trump wasn’t alarmed by the assault on the Capitol—as some previous accounts have suggested—and that he may have been more than merely aware of the efforts to undermine the election. He may have been in violation of a felony.
It’s not clear how far the defiance of Bannon, Jeffrey Clark, and Meadows will go. The next step for those Congress holds in contempt is that the matter is referred to the Justice Department, which decides whether to prosecute. Some experts have suggested that the Trump loyalists can try and appeal legal rulings all the way to the Supreme Court, but the high court might ultimately refrain from hearing their case.
“Right now there’s nothing they can do about Bannon, except sit back and wait until the Justice Department does its job in July, and the case could very well get postponed some more, and it’ll be a running-out-the-clock game as democracy sits idly by in the face of a fascist threat,” Shaub said. “In the case of Meadows, it’s not even guaranteed that the Justice Department is going to be willing to prosecute him.”
Maybe not, but Meadows and the others have reason to take the committee’s investigation a lot more seriously than they did 48 hours ago. Meanwhile Trump himself—in addition to Cheney’s broadside—has to face news that a federal judge (and a Trump-appointed one, at that) ruled that the House Ways and Means Committee can access his tax records. On top of that, The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that a longtime Trump accountant gave testimony to the Manhattan grand jury that is considering bringing criminal charges against the former president. All of that is secondary in importance to what Trump was doing during those 187 minutes on January 6.