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Criminal contempt vote adds to Mark Meadows' troubled legacy

Mark Meadows failed as a congressman and a White House chief of staff. Now the institution where he once served has voted to hold him in criminal contempt.

During his seven years on Capitol Hill, Mark Meadows was not held in the highest regard. As Dana Milbank explained in a column last summer, the North Carolina Republican "developed an unsurpassed reputation for blowing things up and making sure bills didn't pass."

When Meadows wasn't excelling at shutting down the government, he was trying — and failing — to work behind the scenes to oust then-House Speaker John Boehner. After his retirement, Boehner said of the North Carolinian, "He's an idiot. I can't tell you what makes him tick."

Last year, Meadows managed to parlay this ignominious record into a promotion of sorts: Donald Trump tapped him to serve as his fourth White House chief of staff in four years. Meadows — who got the job because the then-president was impressed by his television appearances — quickly became a hindrance to governing.

As he prepared to exit the West Wing, a Washington Post analysis concluded that Meadows had "earned the title of worst chief of staff in history."

It hardly seemed possible, but things managed to get quite a bit worse for Meadows after he left public service and found himself up to his neck in questions surrounding the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The Republican struggled to make up his mind about cooperating with the investigation, before ultimately deciding to ignore a congressional subpoena.

The response from the institution where he once served was predictable. NBC News reported overnight:

The House voted Tuesday night to refer former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to the Justice Department for a potential criminal charge over his refusal to answer questions about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Lawmakers passed the measure largely along party lines in a 222-208 vote.

A couple of months ago, when the House voted to hold Steve Bannon in contempt, nine Republicans broke ranks and supported the criminal referral. Last night, that partisan total dropped from nine to two: Wyoming's Liz Cheney and Illinois' Adam Kinzinger were the only Republicans to vote in the majority, along with every Democrat in chamber.

The matter will now be referred to the U.S. Attorney's office in the nation's capital. Whether Meadows will be criminally charged remains to be seen.

At first blush, the partisan divide probably seems predictable. Circling back to our coverage from October, Meadows is a Republican; he's shielding information at the behest of a former Republican president; that same former Republican president bears responsibility for the attack on the Capitol; and so it stood to reason that Republican House members, under pressure from their own leaders, would vote "no."

But it didn't have to be this way. When a Reagan administration official refused to testify to Congress about EPA superfund sites nearly four decades ago, the House voted at the time on contempt of Congress, and the final tally was 413 to zero.

Similarly, as historian Kevin Kruse recently explained, "During Watergate, most Republicans — whatever their politics, whatever they thought of the president — supported efforts to secure evidence and witness testimony. They believed defending their branch of government was more important than defending their party's leader."

Those days are long gone. GOP politics has changed dramatically since those earlier controversies.

The Meadows subpoena is part of a critically important exercise: Congress is trying to get answers about an attack on our democracy. Nearly every member of the House Republican conference last night suggested that they're largely indifferent to those answers.