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House recommends criminal contempt of Congress charges against Mark Meadows

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The House of Representatives is debating whether to charge former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows with criminal contempt of Congress. Lawmakers want testimony and other information from Meadows to advance their investigation into the storming of the Capitol on January 6. If Congress does charge Meadows, the action heads to the Justice Department, which will decide whether Meadows could face criminal charges.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following the issues, and she's back now. Carrie, to start, this committee has hundreds of documents from Mark Meadows already, which - you've talked about that. Does Meadows have the right to assert executive privilege as a defense?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: First of all, Audie, the privilege belongs to the president. And the sitting president, Joe Biden, has told Congress he will not assert the privilege here. He says January 6 was a unique event, the most serious attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812. Now, the former president, Donald Trump, wants a say in all of this. And according to a Supreme Court precedent back in the Richard Nixon cases, the views of the former president do get some weight here.

But Congress and the current occupant in the White House, Joe Biden, are aligned - no executive privilege. And last week, in a separate case involving former President Trump, a federal appeals court here in D.C. said that mattered.

CORNISH: How has Mark Meadows explained his shift - right? - from turning over documents to not cooperating anymore with the committee?

JOHNSON: Sure. His lawyer, George Terwilliger, says Meadows never stopped cooperating. He says Meadows turned over what he could, including many documents that were not subject to the privilege. We now know that includes messages from Republican lawmakers, TV personalities and even Donald Trump Jr. as the siege on the Capitol was underway.

The lawyer says Meadows has tried to work with Congress. He also says these lawmakers don't have the power to form - force a former White House chief of staff to appear for questioning. But legal sources of mine say Meadows probably should have showed up to say that he wasn't going to testify instead of just blowing off the committee.

CORNISH: We know that Mark Meadows recently published a book about this time - right? - with the White House. How is that all that different from testifying?

JOHNSON: Yeah, this is kind of ironic, right? It's one of those ways that Washington seems to operate. At least since the Reagan era if not before, former White House insiders have written tell-all books, sometimes with information that's very damaging to the White House and includes information about conversations with the president.

I asked Philip Lacovara about this. He worked on the Watergate investigation. And since then, he's watched how courts shape the idea of executive privilege.

PHILIP LACOVARA: Whether the public is really benefited by conflicting versions of what happened when they're motivated by the desire to be as lurid as possible to make the New York Times bestseller list one can debate, but it just goes to show that perhaps the privilege itself may be resting on pretty shaky foundations

CORNISH: To step back for a moment, the former president and his allies have already kind of gone after this investigation as partisan or political. Does this put the Justice Department in line for the same kind of public attack?

JOHNSON: Since his confirmation, Attorney General Merrick Garland has talked about restoring public confidence inside and outside the Justice Department. He means making sure the DOJ is doing things based on the facts and the law, not the personal or political interests of the president. And Garland's been pretty clear about following the recommendation of career DOJ staff.

In the first instance, this decision about charging Mark Meadows will be made by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C. Remember when that office decided to charge Steve Bannon with contempt of Congress? They did some investigating first. It took about three weeks in all. Whatever this Justice Department decides with respect to Mark Meadows, there's going to be somebody who's unhappy and probably somebody who's making political accusations. It's just Washington in 2021.

CORNISH: That was NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.