The many prosecutions involving former president Donald Trump effectively began in earnest Monday — and with a bang. Former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows opted to take the stand in Georgia with a bold and perhaps questionable argument: that he was simply playing White House traffic cop.
The issue at hand was whether Meadows could get his own prosecution, which is currently tied to Trump’s and that of 17 other defendants, “removed” from Fulton County into federal court by arguing that he was acting as a federal official. Meadows and his lawyers clearly calculated that his testimony — which defendants are usually advised to avoid giving — was necessary to succeed on that all-important question, which could have implications for other defendants.
But the testimony also meant we got a taste of the case ahead in Georgia.
One lesson from the proceedings is that Trump’s co-defendants are going to struggle to distance themselves from the alleged conspiracy.
Meadows repeatedly argued that he was merely doing his duty as a very involved chief of staff who needed to be abreast of what the president was doing. While he participated in many key events, he often played down his proximity to the effort to overturn the election.
He said he somehow didn’t know that Trump was contesting the election results in Michigan when key Republican state lawmakers were invited to the Oval Office — even as at other points he made clear he was aware of litigation over Trump’s claims.
He said he didn’t recall his actions setting up the infamous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call with Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), or know what role the Trump-aligned lawyers on the call were playing — including that they were suing Raffensperger.
He said this despite his apparently close relationship with one of the lawyers on the call, Cleta Mitchell. She testified to the House Jan. 6 committee that Meadows had long been “my client” and that he had called her the day after the 2020 election to dispatch her to Atlanta.
A Trump White House aide also testified to the House Jan. 6 committee that she “understood [Mitchell] to have been introduced to the president by Mark Meadows.”
Another lawyer on the Jan. 2 call, Kurt Hilbert, later testified at the Monday hearing about a previously unknown call between Mitchell, Trump, Meadows and the others. That call preceded the Raffensperger call, Hilbert testified.
ABC News reported that when the prosecution asked Meadows why he wanted the lawyers on the call if he didn’t know their roles, “the judge shook his head in seeming bewilderment.”
Meadows also testified that, despite proposing in a Dec. 27, 2020, text message to have the “trump campaign assist financially” to speed up Georgia’s ballot signature-matching process, he had not actually discussed this proposal with the Trump campaign.
Meadows distanced himself from the fake-electors plot, too.
Prosecutors noted that in an email to Trump campaign aide Jason Miller, Meadows said, “We just need to have someone coordinating the electors for states.” They also cited Meadows using “we” during the Raffensperger call. But Meadows testified that he was using the word “we” too loosely and that he meant the campaign, not including himself.
Raffensperger also cast doubt on some Meadows claims. While Meadows suggested that the Jan. 2 call was aimed at resolving a dispute, Raffensperger said, “I’ve seen candidates lose and have a recount, but outreach to this extent was extraordinary.” Raffensperger also said he understood the call “to be a Trump campaign call” — undercutting Meadows’s attempts to distance himself from the campaign purpose.
Much of the distancing was in the service of Meadows arguing that he was acting in a federal rather than campaign capacity — a requirement for getting the case moved to federal court — and not necessarily because he views the events as legally problematic. But he’s not the only one who will face a difficult balancing act on this front.
The testimony also created some challenges for the prosecution.
Raffensperger is supposed to be a key witness for the prosecution. But while the prosecution has charged Meadows with unlawfully pressuring Raffensperger, Raffensperger said of Meadows’s conduct on the call, specifically, “I didn’t think it was inappropriate.”
Meadows also pointed to two alleged errors in the indictment.
The indictment describes his “trump campaign assist financially” text as being sent to Raffensperger’s chief investigator, Frances Watson. But Meadows testified that he believed it actually went to Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs.
He also denied the indictment’s allegation that he asked White House aide John McEntee to prepare a memo, in the indictment’s words, “outlining a strategy for disrupting and delaying the joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021.”
“When this came out in the indictment, it was the biggest surprise for me,” Meadows said. He added: “Me asking Johnny McEntee for this kind of a memo just didn’t happen.”
The memo does exist and was produced to the Jan. 6 committee by McEntee. (It was titled, misleadingly, “JEFFERSON USED HIS POSITION AS VP TO WIN.”) McEntee said in his testimony to the committee that he was asked during an Oval Office meeting that included Trump and Meadows to “look into the precedent” for a vice president’s role in the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6. But McEntee said, “I don’t know if it was Meadows or the president or somebody else” who made the request.
Meadows opted to testify at a time when he doesn’t know precisely what evidence the prosecution has on these fronts. But to the extent the indictment itself contains errors, that would be an inauspicious sign for the prosecution, at the least.
What’s clear is that the lines are increasingly drawn in a case that could quickly be ramping up.