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Criminal or absurd? A look at the charges against Mark Meadows

Then-U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows speaks at the Turning Point USA 2019 Teen Action Summit in Washington, D.C.
Gage Skidmore
Then-U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows speaks at the Turning Point USA Teen Action Summit in Washington, D.C., in 2019.

This story first appeared in WFAE reporter Steve Harrison's weekly newsletter. Sign up here to get the news first in your inbox.

When special counsel Jack Smith indicted former President Trump earlier this month, it was on a narrow set of charges to overturn the 2020 election.

In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ investigation of the former U.S.president is a sprawling case, charging 19 people and alleging a “criminal enterprise” working to keep Trump in the White House.

One of those 19: former North Carolina representative and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows.

This newsletter will look at the charges against the former Freedom Caucus member and talk to two people about what’s in the indictment.

One is former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a former Republican who is strongly opposed to Trump.

The other is John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor from Atlanta who is a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation. He also was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division in the early 2000s.

Here are the instances Meadows is mentioned in the Georgia indictment:

  • The indictment says that on Nov. 20, 2020, Trump and Meadows met with leaders in the Michigan legislature to make “false statements concerning fraud” about the election. Rudy Giuliani joined the meeting by phone.
  • On the next day, Meadows sent a text message to Pennsylvania Republican House member Scott Petty and asked for phone numbers of other lawmakers so Trump could speak with them.
  • Five days later, on Nov. 25, Trump and Meadows met with Pennsylvania lawmakers to discuss holding a special session of their legislature, presumably to change the election results.

Over the next several days, members of Trump’s team discussed with lawmakers the idea of sending a second set of electors from Pennsylvania. Meadows wasn’t present for those conversations.

  • In December, the indictment says Meadows met with Trump aide John McEntee to prepare a plan to disrupt and delay Congress from certifying Biden’s election. It says they wanted then-Vice President Mike Pence to count the electoral votes for some states and send the others back to the states.
  •  On Dec. 22, Meadows tried to go inside the Cobb County, Georgia, civic center to watch a signature match audit of ballots, which was not open to the public. It says he spoke with Georgia officials who prevented him from entering the room.
  • The next day, on Dec. 23, the indictment says Meadows arranged a phone call between Trump and Frances Watson, the chief investigator for the Georgia secretary of state. The indictment says Trump told Watson that he won Georgia by “hundreds of thousands of votes” and that when the truth came out Watson would be praised.
  • On Dec. 27, the indictment says Meadows texted Watson and asked if there would be a way to expedite the signature verification process so Trump could have the results before Jan. 6. Meadows offered for the Trump campaign to help financially with the process, according to the indictment.
  • On Jan. 2, 2021, Trump and Meadows asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to violate his oath by changing the outcome of the election in Georgia, according to the indictment. This is the infamous taped phone call in which Trump asked Raffensperger to “find” more than 11,000 votes.

(North Carolina native and attorney Sidney Powell was also indicted. This issue of Inside Politics will only look at the charges against Meadows.)

In the national media coverage of the Georgia indictments, there was praise for how ambitious Willis was in her investigation. But there also was some skepticism over the scope of the investigation with TheWashington Post writing that “even some of Trump’s critics have questioned the apparent breadth of Willis’s investigation and the challenge she faces in persuading a jury to criminalize statements about election fraud — including portraying a few seemingly innocuous tweets as furthering the conspiracy — that many view as protected speech under the First Amendment.”

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Orr: Why even the seemingly innocuous charges are important

Orr, the former North Carolina Supreme Court justice, said the charges against Meadows appear to be serious and fair.

“I think the broader scope of the indictment is the aggregate action by many people orchestrated on and for Trump,” Orr said. “Clearly Meadows as his chief of staff was with him and involved with what he was doing. And the context as I understand of the Georgia RICO act, it’s the aggregate of all the pieces.”

Orr continued: “It’s easy enough for him to say, I was just setting up a meeting. He knew why they were being set up.”

I asked Orr about Meadows setting up phone calls or asking for numbers. Is that criminal?

“He may say it was an administerial act,” Orr said. “But the other argument is that he was too involved in everything Trump was doing. (Meadows) can’t wash his hands and say ‘I wasn’t part of what Trump was doing.’ I don’t think that’s a particularly effective defense.”

Orr said Meadows’ trip to the Cobb County Civic Center was “an overt act” to further the conspiracy.

He said prosecutors “like to decorate the Christmas tree.” He means taking what seem to be the most serious offenses like pressuring Raffensperger and then adding other charges to it.

He added: “This isn’t all the evidence the prosecution has or will get. You can’t just look at the indictments and say, ‘this is it.’’’

Malcolm: An ‘absurd’ case

Malcolm, the former federal prosecutor, said the case against Meadows is “absurd.”

He said most of the charges are things that a chief of staff “would be expected to do.”

He jokingly said the Fulton County district attorney’s case raises questions as to whether the White House switchboard operator should be indicted as well, since that person facilitated communications between the president and officials in other states.

“All of these people believed, and many of them still believe, that the election results were wrong and the election was stolen,” Malcolm said. “Their beliefs may be unreasonable. But you have a First Amendment right to question the result of an election. They can do that by using the bully pulpit at the Capitol. They can meet with elected officials to refresh their grievances.”

I asked about the two more serious allegations.

The first is the December meeting in which Meadows and McEntee discussed the idea of only having Congress certify some electors.

“They can have lawyers represent them and zealously advocate on behalf of their clients and put forth facts that have some foundation — even if the facts they recite turn out to be false,” Malcolm said. “And this is dangerous stuff to say if you engage in any of this stuff you are engaging in a dangerous conspiracy.”

But what about the Jan. 2 phone call to Raffensperger?

Malcolm admits that was “not a perfect call.” (That’s a reference to how Trump described the phone call he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that was the basis for the first impeachment against him.)

Malcolm argues that Trump wasn’t telling Raffensperger that he needed to find the votes.

“He’s saying we need to find the votes,” he said. “That is an important distinction.”

At the end of the call, Trump tells Raffensperger, “You know what they did and you’re not reporting it. You know, that’s a criminal — that’s a criminal offense. And you know, you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. That’s a big risk.”

Malcolm said “that’s a stupid thing to say.” Though he said he didn’t think it was a serious threat.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.