The impending shark-attack music from “Jaws” could be the soundtrack for Mark Meadows’s potentially perilous legal entanglements. Meadows served as former President Trump’s final White House chief of staff, from March 31, 2020, to Jan. 20, 2021.
Even one of Meadows’s possible quagmires would test your fortitude, but three simultaneously are blood-pressure-busting.
First, the Georgia problem. Recently The Hill reported, “The prosecutor investigating whether Donald Trump and others illegally tried to influence the 2020 election in Georgia is seeking to compel testimony … including former chief of staff Mark Meadows.” Included is the infamous phone call, which Meadows reportedly set up and participated in, when Trump told Georgia officials that “we need only 11,000 votes.”
Second, Meadows’s extensive post-election involvement enabling Trump’s “Big Lie” that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. In June, Meadows’s silence was deafening when he never renounced the explosive testimony of his former special assistant, Cassidy Hutchinson, who disparaged his inaction during a nationally televised Jan. 6 House committee hearing.
Third, Meadows’s management role when boxes containing classified documents were transferred from the White House to Mar-a-Lago and remained there until authorities took action. This week it was revealed that foreign nuclear secrets were found among the documents. After the FBI’s Aug. 8 search of Trump’s Florida estate, Politico reported, “A person close to Meadows insisted that, ‘All procedures were followed in accordance with guidance.’” Again, Meadows was silent.
While serving Trump, could Meadows have stopped the president from engaging in these allegedly illegal activities?
This week, I posed that question to John Kelly, who served as President Trump’s chief of staff from July 31, 2017, to Jan. 2, 2019. During our phone call, Kelly said:
“A chief of staff must be willing to go to the mat. To say to the president, ‘If you insist on doing this, I will resign, and that alone will cause an explosion in this city. And, I will tell people why I am resigning.’ Meadows could and should have done that but elected not to do the right thing.”
Then Kelly explained how he dealt with Trump: “I could not control him, but I knew how to heavily influence him.” Relating that philosophy to his successors – Mick Mulvaney (who served from Jan. 2019 to March 2020) followed by Meadows – Kelly said, “Both were willing to shrug their shoulders and say, ‘that’s what the president wants, let Trump be Trump.’”
Kelly continued, “Chiefs of staff absolutely have to talk truth to power, saying ‘Boss, you are way off on this, if you do this, you will get impeached or relieved.’ But number one, and the ‘North Star’ for chiefs of staff, is the rule of law. You can’t do anything illegal.”
Speaking of illegal, one historian has described Mark Meadows as “the worst chief of staff in history,” surpassing H.R. Haldeman, the perennial titleholder. As President Nixon’s chief, Haldeman was an enabler and enforcer. He was convicted in 1975 for perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice relating to the Watergate cover-up. Haldeman spent 18 months in prison.
Kelly referenced Haldeman during our discussion, saying, “Trump would tell me, ‘If we do this, I will protect you.’ I said, ‘Look, the only chief of staff in history who broke the law was Haldeman, and he went to jail. I don’t break the law.’”
Given Meadows’s potential legal predicament, one might think that he is making a calculation: If he cooperates, he may avoid jail; if he doesn’t cooperate, he has to hope that Trump will be reelected and he might receive a pardon. But, inevitably, Trump and Meadows seem to be headed for a legal showdown. Will Trump try to make Meadows his fall guy, or will Meadows turn witness-for-the-prosecution first? As CNN recently reported:
“In recent months, ‘Trump has been counseled to cut contact with Meadows’ and has ‘complained about Meadows in conversations with other allies,’ said a source.” And “Meadows handed over texts and emails to the National Archives that he had not previously turned over from his time in the administration.”
Moreover, CNN added, “‘It could be a coincidence, but within a week of the August 8 search on Mar-a-Lago, much more started coming in,’ one source familiar with the discussions said.”
Furthermore, on Jan. 19, 2021, Trump named Meadows as one of his designees to the Archives. Thus, CNN also reported:
“While he was at Mar-a-Lago last summer, Meadows talked with Trump about the documents that the Archives was seeking to have returned, sources said. Meadows has continued to work with the Archives in its efforts to recover documents since then, according to the sources.”
Those reports prompted me to ask Kelly how chiefs of staff interface with top-secret documents. He was incredulous, saying, “It is just about impossible for a chief of staff not to know that the president was stuffing boxes with highly classified material” — if, in fact, that is what Trump or his staff did.
Kelly mentioned a secure, numbered system with federal security employees overseeing the protocol. “You have to account for everything in the vault.” Kelly emphasized that these federal employees “would have gone to Meadows; he had to have known that classified docs were missing.”
Kelly suspects any document violations would have been another example of Meadows’s submissive and prevailing “let Trump be Trump” attitude. As Kelly speculated, “Meadows is thinking, ‘If Trump wants to keep this stuff in a box, I don’t care, he is the president.’”
But, Kelly added, “No way on Earth when a president leaves office should he have top secret material with him. No way!”
As he left the chief of staff position, Kelly said he was “trying to find a replacement, an adult in the room, someone who would be willing to close the door and get into a heated conversation.” Instead, Trump declared, “I want a yes man.”
Mulvaney was hired, and that led to Meadows.
Therefore, I was not surprised when John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who knows about men under pressure in war and peace, said: “Meadows was a moral coward.”
Cross-posted at The Hill and Substack.
Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor and served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.