UPDATE (June 8, 2023 8:30 p.m. E.T.): Former President Donald Trump has officially been indicted on seven charges by special counsel Jack Smith. This is Trump’s second indictment.
During his four years in office, former President Donald Trump went through a parade of White House chiefs of staff. By the time former North Carolina congress member Mark Meadows was tapped for the gig, Trump had decided that the quality he wanted most wasn’t Reince Priebus’ experience running the Republican Party or retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly’s adherence to protocol. He wanted someone who would say yes to whatever he ordered.
Enter Meadows, who leaned in to that role with zeal, especially in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and during the aftermath of the 2020 election. But his sycophancy at times clashed with his own self-serving (and self-aggrandizing) view of himself as a canny political operator. That friction has now led to Justice Department prosecutors possessing some of the most damning evidence against Trump across multiple investigations.
His sycophancy at times clashed with his own self-serving (and self-aggrandizing) view of himself as a canny political operator.
Since the FBI first searched his Mar-a-Lago property last year and seized documents marked classified, Trump has insisted publicly that at some point he had declassified all documents in his possession after he left the White House. But the Justice Department has an audio recording in which Trump admitted to possessing a document that was still classified, CNN first reported on Wednesday. That tape has already been played as part of testimony provided to the grand jury empaneled as part of the investigation, according to a source who spoke to NBC News. (Trump has denied that he's done anything wrong in possessing the documents and has falsely claimed that other recent presidents have handled their presidential papers similarly.)
That such a tape exists at all seems on its face extraordinary, given that Trump famously hates it when his aides take notes during conversations with him. But the recording was made in July 2021 during a meeting with several people helping to produce Meadows’ book about his time in the White House. A staff member named Margo Martin “routinely taped the interviews he gave for books being written about him that year,” The New York Times reported.
The fact that Trump admitted the document he possessed wasn’t declassified is bad enough for his already shaky legal defense on that front. But several reports, including from NBC, indicate the document he referred to included plans for a potential strike against Iran. The recording also suggests the document might have been in the room with him at the time, despite the people with him not having clearance to view it. Those factors could theoretically bring about a charge for disclosing classified information on top of a potential allegation of obstructing justice in refusing to hand over all the documents he’d taken from the White House.
Further complicating things for Trump, CNN reported on Friday that the Justice Department subpoenaed the document that he mentioned on the tape in March. His lawyers have not been able to produce it, adding to investigators’ suspicion that even after last year’s search, the former president still has classified materials in his possession. All this for a book that he reportedly hated, despite how much Meadows downplayed Trump’s many mistakes.
This isn’t the first time a Meadows-linked evidence trail has created headaches for Trump. Even before moving over to the White House, Meadows was a prolific texter, helping undergird his own narrative as a mover and shaker. In a 2017 profile with Vox, he showed off just how many calls he’d received from the newly installed administration as a sign of how looped in he was. It was Meadows who people turned to when Trump lost the 2020 election and wanted to coordinate the next steps. It was also Meadows whose phone blew up during the Jan. 6 attack as Fox News hosts and members of Congress alike pleaded with him to get Trump to call off the assault.
But when the House Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed his records, Meadows handed over scores of text messages before halting his cooperation. When those texts were made public, they helped reveal the scope of the plot to overturn the 2020 election results and how enmeshed in that effort he and several House Republicans truly were. He then was reportedly forced to make those same texts available to Justice Department prosecutors investigating Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack under a separate grand jury’s subpoena last September.
Meadows has been out of the spotlight lately but is still very much trying to maintain his political influence. He remains close with his former colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus — which he helped co-found — and has advised them on such matters as Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker of the House and the fight over the debt ceiling. Members of the far-right group even considered tossing out his name as a candidate for speaker, Rep. Ralph Norman, Republican of South Carolina, told CNN. And he’s currently making a very comfortable $500,000 a year as senior partner at a pro-Trump “think tank” called the Conservative Partnership Institute.
But special prosecutor Jack Smith — who is running both the Mar-a-Lago documents and Jan. 6 investigations — is reportedly nearing a decision on whether or not to charge Trump in at least one of those probes. If indictments are handed down, Meadows will likely have played a key part in helping to build the case against his former boss. And for someone who has risen so far by hitching himself to Trump’s coattails, it may be his own ego that helps bring the former president crashing back down to earth.
CORRECTION: (June 3, 2023, 10:00 a.m. ET) A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the state Mark Meadows represented in Congress. He represented North Carolina, not South Carolina.