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After years at the center of political power, Mark Meadows now faces legal jeopardy

Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has offered the most stunning revelations in the Congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection.
AFP via Getty Images
Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has offered the most stunning revelations in the Congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has offered the most stunning revelations yet in the congressional investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Meadows, a former congressman with a reputation as a conservative disrupter, now faces possible prosecution for abruptly cutting off his cooperation with the House committee investigating the attack.

For Meadows, it's the latest chapter in a career defined by conflict in Washington.

Meadows was first elected to Congress after North Carolina's 11th Congressional District was redrawn in 2011, turning it decidedly red. The Democrat who held the seat, Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, decided not to run for re-election.

It was Meadows who prevailed in an eight-person primary, and who ultimately won the seat.

"He talked about taking down Obamacare. He talked about returning education back to the local people," said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University. "These were conservative positions, but they weren't radical positions. They weren't fringe. They weren't taking down the institutions that govern. They were policy positions."

Meadows's reputation as congressional disrupter

In Washington, Meadows quickly showed that he was willing to be a disrupter, and quickly gained a reputation as a conservative firebrand. In 2013, he helped force a government shutdown in an unsuccessful attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act.

He was also among the group of hardline conservative lawmakers that founded the House Freedom Caucus, which pushed opposition to then President Barack Obama at every turn.

Meadows also showed a willingness to frequently challenge his own party's establishment, teeing off clashes repeatedly over issues like spending and immigration.

In 2015, he tapped into conservative discontent with Republican House Speaker John Boehner. He filed a motion to remove Boehner from his job.

"If my voting card is really only allowed to vote the way that the leadership tells me that I can vote, if I don't vote that way I get either punished or I fail to get bills heard, then it's just an illusion of a democracy and a representative form of government," Meadows told the right wing radio host Mark Levin in July 2015.

Roughly two months later, Boehner announced that he would resign.

Things were not much better for Boehner's successor, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Meadows put himself and the Freedom Caucus at the center of nearly every major legislative debate.

"As opposed to a member of Congress who takes the kind of quiet internal path to power, Mark Meadows took a path to power through the media," said Cooper of Western Carolina University. "Mark Meadows took a path to power, kind of working from the outside of the institution through the Freedom Caucus and, frankly, through the press."

Though Meadows was a hard-line conservative his colleagues say he was able to maintain relationships with people across the aisle, even those who agreed with little he had to say on policy. He counted the late Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Oversight committee's chairman, as a close friend. Meadows delivered an eulogy for Cummings after his death in 2019.

"Some have classified it as an unexpected friendship, but for those of us that know Elijah," Meadows said, "it's not unexpected or surprising."

Like many ideological conservatives, Meadows didn't support Trump when he first ran for president. But the North Carolina congressman ultimately became one of the president's most loyal — and powerful — congressional allies, leveraging his perch on the House Oversight committee.

White House revelations

Soon after, Meadows joined the White House as Trump's fourth chief of staff, overseeing the West Wing beginning in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

Meadows released a new book this month, titled "The Chief's Chief," about his time at the White House. In it, he revealed new details about when former President Trump tested positive for coronavirus, as well as Trump's medical condition in October 2020.

In the book, Meadows said that Trump tested positive for coronavirus days before sharing a debate stage with then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden in late September 2020.

Trump has denied Meadows' account, calling it "fake news," and the former president was said to have been furious at the revelation about his health in the book.

The book came out within days of Meadows initially agreeing to cooperate with the House January 6 committee. Soon after, Meadows stopped cooperating.

Through his lawyer, George Terwilliger, Meadows argued that he had provided documents to the panel and should not be compelled to appear for an interview.

"The Select Committee's true intentions in dealing with Mr. Meadows have been revealed when it accuses him of contempt citing the very documents his cooperation has produced," Terwilliger said.

Ultimately, the House voted to refer him for criminal contempt of Congress charges.

Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist who worked for former Republican speakers Boehner and Ryan, argued that Meadows "botched" his book rollout, and thought he was going to flatter the president.

"Trump starts coming after him, and he needs to get back into his good graces and so he stops participating," Buck said.

Meadows had already turned over thousands of pages of emails and text messages that revealed the panic consuming some members of Trump's inner circle, including the former president's son, on January 6.

Some of the texts released were from former White House communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin. She'd already resigned by January 6, but that day, she texted Meadows, who she previously worked for on Capitol Hill.

"If someone doesn't say something, people will die," she wrote to Meadows.

Farah Griffin now works at CNN, and discussed those text messages on air this week.

"I will never know why he didn't listen, but I will never stop believing that anyone who had a platform that day had an obligation to use it," she told CNN's Jake Tapper. "Meadows had hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, his voice would have rang very important to people on Capitol Hill."

But some of Meadows' former Republican House colleagues have condemned the committee. Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, who founded the Freedom caucus with him, called it a political "charade."

"Make no mistake. When Democrats vote in favor of this resolution, it is a vote to put a good man in prison," he said as the House prepared to vote to hold Meadows in contempt.

The Justice Department will now decide whether to move forward with this case — leaving a man who was at the center of power in Washington for years now potentially facing prison.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.