ATLANTA (AP) — Mark Meadows testified in court Monday that actions detailed in a sweeping indictment that accuses him of participating in an illegal conspiracy to overturn then-President Donald Trump's 2020 election loss were all part of his job as White House chief of staff.
The extraordinary testimony — from a former top presidential aide who now faces charges alongside his old boss — came in the first courtroom skirmish in a case that's likely to have many. Meadows' claims were part of his argument that the case should be moved from a state court to federal court. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones did not immediately rule.
As Trump was consumed by claims of widespread election fraud in the weeks after his 2020 loss, Meadows said, it was difficult to focus on the things they needed to be doing to wind down the presidency. As a result, Meadows said, he took actions to determine whether the allegations were true, including actions prosecutors allege were improper.
Meadows said he didn’t believe he did anything that was “outside my scope as chief of staff.”
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who used Georgia’s racketeering law to bring the case, alleges that Trump, Meadows and 17 others participated in a wide-ranging conspiracy to try to keep the Republican president in power illegally even after his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Willis' team argued that Meadows’ actions were political in nature and not performed as part of his official duties.
It's just one of four criminal cases Trump is currently facing. In Washington on Monday, a judge overseeing a federal case over charges that Trump sought to illegally subvert the results of the 2020 election set a trial date for March 4, 2024, right in the heart of the presidential primary calendar.
During the Georgia hearing, Meadows attorney George J. Terwilliger III called his client to the stand and asked him about his duties as Trump’s chief of staff. The lawyer then walked him through the acts alleged in the indictment to ask if he had done those as part of his job. For most of the acts listed, Meadows said he had performed them as part of his official duties.
In the cross-examination, prosecutor Anna Cross ticked through the same acts to ask Meadows what federal policy was being advanced in each of them. He said repeatedly that the federal interest was in ensuring accurate and fair elections, but she accused him several times of not answering her question.
Meadows spent nearly four hours on the stand, sometimes struggling to remember details of the events that unfolded over about two months following the election. But he remained upbeat, indulging in self-deprecation with a quip about how he sometimes forgets to take out the trash, smiling frequently and laughing at the judge’s jokes.
Prosecutor Donald Wakeford told the judge during his closing argument that the law that allows a case to be moved from a state court to federal court is meant to protect federal authority. But he argued that there is no federal authority to protect in this case because Meadows' actions were explicitly political and meant to keep Trump in power, making them illegal under the Hatch Act, which restricts partisan political activity by federal employees.
Terwilliger contended that the state cannot use an indictment to affect what a chief of staff does in his job. Even a mistake on Meadows' part wouldn't be grounds to keep from moving the case to federal court “unless it was malicious and done willfully,” he said.
The allegations against Meadows include participating, along with Trump and others, in meetings or communications with state lawmakers that were meant to advance the alleged illegal scheme to keep Trump in power; traveling to Atlanta’s suburbs, where a ballot envelope signature audit was happening; arranging a phone call between Trump and a Georgia secretary of state investigator; and participating in a January 2021 phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during which Trump suggested Raffensperger could help “find 11,780 votes” needed for him to win Georgia.
Called as a witness by prosecutors, Raffensperger said in response to the efforts by Trump and his allies in the weeks following the election that “outreach to this extent was extraordinary.” But under questioning by Meadows' attorney Michael Francisco, he said Meadows himself did not ask him to do anything he thought was inappropriate.
The judge said that he would try to rule as quickly as possible but that there isn't a lot of relative case law and he needs to give the matter “thorough consideration.” In the meantime, the case continues to progress in Fulton County Superior Court, and the judge said Meadows will have to honor a Sept. 6 arraignment if he hasn't ruled by then.
If Meadows succeeds in moving his case to federal court, it would mean a jury pool that includes a broader area than just overwhelmingly Democratic Fulton County. It would also mean a trial that would not be photographed or televised, as cameras are not allowed inside. But it does not open the door for Trump, if he's reelected in 2024, or another president to pardon anyone because any convictions would still happen under state law.
At least four others charged in the indictment are also seeking to move their cases to federal court, and there is speculation that Trump will try to do the same. Trump attorneys Steve Sadow and Jennifer Little listened attentively in the courtroom to the Meadows hearing Monday, along with lawyers for some of the other defendants.
During his testimony, Meadows denied two of the allegations made against him in the indictment. He testified that he never asked White House personnel officer John McEntee to draft a memo to Vice President Mike Pence on how to delay certification of the election.
“When this came out in the indictment, it was the biggest surprise for me,” Meadows said. He later said, “Me asking Johnny McEntee for this kind of a memo just didn’t happen.”
He also said he did not text the Georgia secretary of state’s office chief investigator, Frances Watson, as the indictment alleged. Rather, he said, he believes that text was sent to Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state.
Kate Brumback, The Associated Press