UPDATED: Meadows testifies in bid to move case to federal court

Meadows tell judge he was acting as White House chief of staff
After hours of testimony, Mark Meadows (center), the former White House Chief of Staff, is seen leaving the federal court in Atlanta on Monday, August 28, 2023. He appeared in an Atlanta courtroom to attempt the transfer of his Fulton County racketeering case to federal court.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

After hours of testimony, Mark Meadows (center), the former White House Chief of Staff, is seen leaving the federal court in Atlanta on Monday, August 28, 2023. He appeared in an Atlanta courtroom to attempt the transfer of his Fulton County racketeering case to federal court. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

The first legal test of Fulton County’s sweeping election racketeering case began Monday as Mark Meadows told a federal judge that when he contacted Georgia officials after the 2020 elections he was acting in his capacity as White House chief of staff.

In testimony that lasted about four hours, Meadows, who is trying to get his case moved to federal court, defended his actions on behalf of former President Donald Trump. “I don’t know that I did anything that was outside my scope as chief of staff,” Meadows testified.

The silver-haired former Republican congressman, wearing a navy suit and striped tie, fielded questions from his attorney, George Terwilliger III, special prosecutor Anna Cross and Steve Jones, the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the hearing.

The packed courtroom held dozens of reporters and attorneys for several of the other defendants, including Steve Sadow and Jennifer Little, Trump’s two Atlanta attorneys. The outcome could be consequential for Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis’s case against Meadows, Trump and 17 others; If Meadows’ case is moved to federal court his co-defendants could follow.

Trump Lawyers Jennifer Little (left) and  Steve Sadow walk out of the Richard B. Russell Federal Courthouse after hearing Mark Meadow’s testimony to move the Georgia Rico case to Federal Court on August 28, 2023 in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Credit: Michael Blackshire

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Credit: Michael Blackshire

At the end of the eight-hour hearing, Jones said he aims to issue a ruling “as fast as possible.” But the appointee of former President Barack Obama noted that there was not much legal precedent rely on — and that his decision was likely to create precedent. Jones told Meadows that if he hasn’t issued a ruling before Sept. 6, the South Carolina resident should plan to get arraigned by Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, along with the other co-defendants in the case.

Meadows has been charged with violating the state’s anti-racketeering law and one other felony — soliciting Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to violate his oath of office during the infamous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which Trump asked the secretary to “find” him 11,780 votes, one more than was needed to overturn Georgia’s results.

While most criminal defense lawyers are loath to have their clients testify, Meadows was the first witness called to the stand during the hearing, which was essentially a mini bench trial. It marked first time he’s testified in public about his actions in the weeks following the 2020 elections.

The motivation behind trying to move Meadows’ case out of Fulton Superior Court is to get a more favorable jury pool. The 10-county Atlanta division of the U.S. District Court has a more politically conservative pool of jurors to cull from than only Fulton.

The Richard B. Russell Federal Building, is seen on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

To transfer the case, Meadows has to show he was a federal official at the time of his alleged crime, show what happened was under his official duties and show he has a “colorable” federal defense. The first and third hurdles appear to be satisfied — he was White House chief of staff and he is raising defenses under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and First and Thirteenth Amendments.

So, most of the questioning centered on whether Meadows was acting in his federal capacity on several occasions: his Dec. 22, 2020, visit to Cobb County where the signature verification audit was being conducted; his texting a Secretary of State official about a Fulton County audit that Trump desired; his arranging a Dec. 23, 2020, phone call from Trump to Secretary of State investigator Frances Watson; and him coordinating the phone call between Trump and Raffensperger.

Over the course of his testimony, Meadows repeatedly emphasized that he was acting squarely in his role as the president’s top aide in each one of those incidents – called overt acts in the anti-racketeering indictment.

Some of his justifications seemed to have little federal policy interest save for being a gatekeeper to Trump’s schedule and making sure the president was informed of developments of interest. “Having a broad understanding of what was going on was critically important as a senior adviser to the president,” he said.

There also was a federal interest, Meadows said, in the fair and accurate administration of state elections. And he said his actions also could help inform future legislation or executive orders signed by the president.

Hard boundary

Prosecutors were dismissive of Meadows’ arguments, contending he was effectively saying that there were no legal limits to what he could do as chief of staff. Chief Senior District Attorney Donald Wakeford instead argued that the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity as part of their official roles, presented a “hard outer boundary” that Meadows had crossed repeatedly in Georgia after the last election.

The state called two witnesses to testify on Monday afternoon: Raffensperger and Kurt Hilbert, an attorney who litigated a pair of Georgia election fraud cases on behalf of Trump and his campaign in Fulton and federal courts.

Hilbert, who participated in the Trump-Raffensperger call, disclosed that minutes before they called the secretary, there was a separate phone conversation between himself, Trump, Meadows, attorney Cleta Mitchell and others. That call had not been widely reported previously.

Raffensperger, wearing a red tie and leaning forward in his seat, was questioned for nearly an hour as prosecutors played several excerpts from his leaked call with Trump. He discussed vetting some of Trump’s election fraud claims and outlining the process by which counties and the state administer and certify elections. He made clear that the federal government has no role in the latter.

The secretary described hisattempts to avoid Meadows’ repeated pushes for him to speak to Trump. And Raffensperger said he understood the Jan. 2 conversation with the former president “to be a Trump campaign call,” not a federal endeavor, especially when Meadows said he would like “find a path forward that’s less litigious.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (second from left) leaves Federal Court in Atlanta after testifying on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.  (Miguel Martinez / Miguel.Martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel.Martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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Credit: Miguel.Martinezjimenez@ajc.com

‘Landing the plane’

During his closing statement, Terwilliger argued that, as the president’s top aide, Meadows was juggling competing interests in the final weeks of the Trump presidency. Among them was “landing the plane” before Jan. 6, when Congress tallied Electoral College votes, so the administration could “get on to the peaceful transfer of power.”

During cross-examination, Cross pressed Meadows on whether he was acting on behalf of Trump’s re-election campaign — rather than as a federal employee.

Becoming more defensive, Meadows said he wanted “to make sure elections are accurate. ... I would assume that has a federal nexus.”

He also sought to establish that as chief of staff he would regularly meet with state officials on a variety of topics and that he was a frequent presence on Trump’s phone calls.

As for visiting the Cobb County Civic Center audit, Meadows said he did it on his own to anticipate “what the president would ask” about it.

“It was a very professional operation,” he said of the audit. “It was being done in my opinion all the proper ways it should be.”

Meadows acknowledged that a few weeks before his visit to Cobb he had a meeting with Trump and then-Attorney General Bill Barr, during which Barr said a lot of the election fraud claims had no merit.

When asked about that, Meadows said, “certainly there were allegations that were unfounded,” but there also were “other allegations” with ongoing investigations.

Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows walks out of the Richard B. Russell Federal Courthouse after his hearing to move the Georgia Rico case to Federal Court on August 28, 2023 in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Credit: Michael Blackshire

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Credit: Michael Blackshire

As for the Jan. 2, 2021, phone call, Meadows said he arranged it at Trump’s direction in hopes of finding common ground between campaign’s attorneys who were litigating the issue and the Secretary of State’s Office. And Meadows said his primary concern was getting a signature verification audit in Fulton County.

But it was during that call when Trump made several outrageous claims: more than 9,000 votes were cast by people who were not registered to vote or lived outside of Georgia; almost 5,000 dead people voted; and he won Georgia by “hundreds of thousands of votes.”

Cross, referring to Trump’s false allegations, asked Meadows whether he thought some of them merited investigation than just what happened in Fulton.

“I didn’t know if they did or didn’t,” he said. " ... I can’t speak to the veracity of that.”

Meadows also took issue with a couple of passages in the indictment. According to one alleged overt act, Meadows asked John McEntee, head of the White House’s personnel office, to prepare a memo outlining a strategy “for disrupting and delaying the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021,” and having Vice President Mike Pence count only half of the electoral college votes from certain states.

“When this came out in the indictment, this was the biggest surprise for me,” Meadows said. It “just didn’t happen.”

The indictment also said Meadows texted Watson on Dec. 27, 2020, asking if there was a way, if the Trump campaign assisted financially, to speed up the Fulton signature verification before the Electoral College vote. That text, Meadows testified, was sent not to Watson but to Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs.

Meadows is one of five of the defendants charged in Fulton County who are seeking to remove their cases to federal court. If the case is transferred, Willis and her staff wold continue to prosecute and they would still face state - not federal - charges.