By Mary Clare Jalonick | Associated Press
WASHINGTON – A House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol uprising will vote Wednesday to hold a former Justice Department official in contempt and, for the second time, demand criminal charges against a defiant witness while lawmakers seek answers about the violent attack.
The committee scheduled a vote Monday to pursue charges of contempt against Jeffrey Clark, a former Attorney General who joined President Donald Trump as he tried to overturn his election defeat. If the panel approves it, the recommendation on charges of contempt for crime will then go to the full house for a vote and then to the Department of Justice.
Clark appeared for a deposition on Nov. 5, but told lawmakers he would not answer questions, based in part on Trump’s legal efforts to block the committee’s investigation.
The vote will come as the panel also considers allegations of contempt for former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who was Trump’s top aide on the day hundreds of his supporters violently attacked the US capital and suspended the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. Meadows was summoned in September, but has not yet sat down for discussion with the committee.
The panel has vowed to aggressively seek charges against any non-compliant witnesses as they investigate the worst attack on the Capitol in two centuries, and the Justice Department has signaled its willingness to pursue those allegations, accusing former Trump ally Steve Bannon . this month on two federal charges of criminal contempt. Attorney General Merrick Garland said at the time that Bannon’s indictment reflected the department’s “steadfast commitment” to the rule of law, after Bannon directly defied the committee and refused to cooperate.
Clark’s case could have been more complicated when he appeared for his ouster and, unlike Bannon, was a Trump administration official on January 6th. Trump has sued to block the committee’s work and has sought to assert executive privileges over documents and interviews, arguing that his conversations and actions at the time should be shielded from public view.
A report issued by Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee described how Clark thwarted Trump’s efforts to undo the election results and, as a result, clashed with the Justice Department’s superior, who resisted the pressure, culminating in a dramatic White House rally in which Trump rallied to raise Clark to the Attorney General. He did not do so after several helpers threatened to resign.
In a somewhat similar case, the Department of Justice in 2015 refused to prosecute former IRS official Lois Lerner out of contempt for congressional charges. Lerner made an opening statement at a congressional hearing, denying any wrongdoing but then refusing to answer questions from lawmakers, citing her Fifth Amendment’s right not to incriminate herself.
With a little precedent to go on, it’s unclear what the department would do in Clark’s case.
Clark is one of more than 40 people the committee has convened so far. Panel Chairman, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, wrote in Clark’s subpoena that the committee’s inquiry “has revealed credible evidence that you tried to involve the Ministry of Justice in efforts to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power”, and his efforts “risked involving the Ministry of Justice in actions that lacked evidentiary basis and threatened to undermine the rule of law. ”
After Clark refused to answer questions, Thompson said it was “astonishing that a person who so recently held a public office to uphold the Constitution would now hide behind vague claims of privileges from a former president, refusing to answer questions about an attack on our democracy, and continue an attack on the rule of law. ”
Lawmakers in the committee have said they will decide as early as this week whether to keep Meadows in contempt as well. Thompson said earlier this month that the committee “will not rush” to make it clear that it has given the former North Carolina congressman more opportunities to cooperate.
Meadows’ lawyer has repeatedly made it clear that he will not comply with the September subpoena, claiming that Trump has said he will assert executive privilege over the testimony. The committee has rejected those arguments, especially since the White House has said Biden would relinquish any privilege over Meadows’ interview, and since the courts have so far thwarted Trump’s efforts to prevent the committee from gathering information.
The House of Representatives panel has claimed they have questions for Meadows and Clark, as they did with Bannon, which does not directly involve talks with Trump and could not possibly be blocked by privilege claims.
In the committee’s subpoena in September, Thompson cited Meadows’ efforts to overthrow Trump’s defeat in the weeks leading up to the uprising and his pressure on government officials to pressure the former president’s false allegations of widespread electoral fraud.
Despite Trump’s false claims of a stolen election – the primary motivation for the violent mob that broke into the Capitol and cut off the certification of Biden’s victory – the results were confirmed by government officials and confirmed by the courts. Trump’s own Attorney General, William Barr, had said the Justice Department did not find evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the results.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.