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The significance of the House voting to hold Mark Meadows in contempt


The House of Representatives voted to hold Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress. This vote was cast almost, although not entirely, along party lines. Meadows, of course, was chief of staff to then-President Trump on January 6, 2021, so lawmakers want to learn all that he knows about the White House role in that day's attack on the U.S. Capitol. The lawmakers already have emails and text messages that Meadows turned over, but they want more information that he has refused to provide so far. So we've called Kim Wehle. She's a professor of law at the University of Baltimore Law School and a frequent guest here. Welcome back.

KIM WEHLE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should begin by saying that Mark Meadows did cooperate for a while and claims that he's doing all that he could without violating a claim of executive privilege, a right of privacy that the president sometimes claims for himself. Does he have a plausible case?

WEHLE: I don't think he has a plausible or strong case, I should say, of executive privilege for a number of reasons. First of all, it's something that you claim question by question. So if he were cooperating on that, he'd show up. And then as to specific questions, claim executive privilege second, the Supreme Court held in a case called Reynolds that the president has to actually formally invoke it. President Biden has not. And he's the president, so arguably it's over. If former President Trump has some say in that, he hasn't formally invoked it. And I think the last problem is that it has to do with waiver, that he's - you know, he's talked about his conversations with the president on January 6 in his book, apparently, and he did turn over lots of documents that now he's saying he won't talk about under oath, even though he's turned them over.

So that's really kind of talking out of both sides of his mouth, saying, listen; you can have these. There's no privilege. But I won't talk about them 'cause they're privileged. So legally, none of that is, I think, ultimately would stick. But, of course, you know, delay is in his corner here because of the midterms coming up next November.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's interesting, listening to you, Kim Wehle, because it had been presumed that Mark Meadows would have a stronger executive privilege claim than Steve Bannon, who also was referred for criminal contempt and was not a White House aide at the time of January 6. But you're saying, actually, no, when you look at the details, Meadows has no case at all.

WEHLE: Well, you know, there might be specific communications that are covered, is what I'm saying because certainly - that he was chief of staff. Bannon wasn't even in the White House at the time. But executive privilege isn't some blanket immunity. We know from the Nixon case and Watergate, that the Supreme Court unanimously held, that the Oval Office tapes were not covered by executive privilege. It can be outweighed by something more important. In that case, it was a criminal investigation. So what I'm saying is it certainly does not give him the - any legal right to just not do anything more at this point. I do think, though, Steve, that if this were to come to contempt and there would be an indictment, I think he probably has a stronger case than Steve Bannon because he did try to comply. He did substantially comply, and we're hearing now about very important information that he's turned over to the committee.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the importance of that information. We've been fascinated by and we've reported on this program about these text messages that Mark Meadows received on January 6. They came, as you know, Kim, from Fox News personalities like Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, appealing to Meadows to get the president to call it off. The president's own son, Donald Trump Jr., appears also to have sent a text message appealing to Meadows to get Trump to call it off. What do you feel you learned from that?

WEHLE: Well, you know, one thing is, of course, we learned that the narrative that this was no big deal is a massive gaslighting of the American public because, clearly, in the moment, people - everyone thought it was a big deal because it was. The second, really, is Liz Cheney's statement from the floor that she's looking into, potentially, obstruction of an official proceeding by former President Trump. I mean, she made that loud and clear. It's a federal criminal statute - 18 USC Section 1512. It's been used against the insurrectionists across the country. And recently, a Trump appointee in the district court here in Washington, federal judge, said that does apply to January 6. The argument had been, no, it's limited to interfering with evidence, for example.

We've never had something like this, Steve. We've never had an attempted coup or an overthrow, a violent overthrow, of the Capitol. So the question is, is that statute going to apply here for the first time? And I think the fact that she's linking the president to that and we're seeing the litigation across the country potentially stick is a warning of at least where they have their eye on. And the question then would be, can Donald Trump be shown to have corruptly tried to interfere?


WEHLE: And that's a state of mind that he's very good at dodging.

INSKEEP: Listening to you, it seems to me that maybe the important text messages here are not the ones from Fox News personalities and Donald Trump Jr. saying, Mark Meadows, please get the president to call it off; it's Mark Meadows saying back, I'm trying. It's very hard. I'm trying to do something - because it's abundantly clear that, for hours, the president didn't do anything. And we now know that people were trying to get him to do something, and he refused.

WEHLE: Right. A hundred and eighty-seven minutes - Liz Cheney called that dereliction of duty, which is, of course, a military term. But the idea is he knew - it sounds like he knew what was happening. He had the law enforcement, federal law enforcement, at his fingertips, and he sat back and watched it and didn't step up to protect the American public and to protect a coordinate branch of government - that is the United States Congress - that was literally under physical assault.

INSKEEP: Kim Wehle, it's always a pleasure hearing your insights. Really appreciate it.

WEHLE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Kim Wehle is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore Law School. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.