As she opened the House Jan. 6 committee hearing Tuesday, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney ticked through a list of names of people Donald Trump’s legal team have attempted to pin the blame for the Capitol attack, naming the president’s lawyers, MAGA-friend lawmakers, and others.
Mark Meadows, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, didn’t make the list — yet.
Trump’s inner circle increasingly views Meadows as a likely fall guy for the former president’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Members of Trump’s legal team are actively planning certain strategies around Meadows’ downfall — including possible criminal charges. Trump has himself begun the process of distancing himself from some of his onetime senior aide’s alleged actions around Jan. 6.
Meadows’ already bleak legal prospects could get even worse. Rolling Stone has learned that the Jan. 6 committee has been quietly probing his financial dealings, and any new revelations would add to an already long list of unethical and potential illegal actions he’s accused of taking on behalf of Donald Trump.
“Everyone is strategizing around the likelihood that Mark is in a lot of trouble,” says a lawyer close to the former president. “Everyone who knows what they’re doing, anyway.”
This reporting is based on Rolling Stone’s conversations with eight sources familiar with the matter, each of whom is still working in Trump’s political orbit, on his legal defense, or in Republican circles in regular contact with the ex-president. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss sensitive matters. A spokesperson for Meadows declined to comment.
For Meadows, it doesn’t help his case that he’s loathed by any number of his fellow Trumpworld veterans, some of whom view him as a two-faced man prone to double-dealing and simply telling people what they want to hear. Some of Meadows’ ex-colleagues and staff in the Trump administration continue to hold grudges against him, partly because they see him as responsible for putting their lives and health in danger when he oversaw a period of rapid coronavirus spread in Trump’s White House towards the end of the presidency. And the former president himself is not long on loyalty, particularly when facing legal peril of his own. Trump’s team has already explored possible legal gameplans about what would happen if Meadows faced additional criminal charges stemming from the events surrounding Jan. 6, according to three people familiar with the situation. And those discussions have at times focused on how to insulate Trump, should any significant charges against foot soldiers like Meadows actually materialize.
Indeed, in recent weeks, Trump himself has casually dropped into conversations with some of his longtime associates that he didn’t always know what Meadows was doing during the months leading up to the riot or after his time in office, two sources with knowledge of the matter tell Rolling Stone. (When Trump finds himself backed into a corner or a moment of legal jeopardy, he will often claim — however flimsily — that he barely knew a top aide who was doing his bidding, or that he didn’t know what his own personal lawyers were doing for him.)
Furthermore, investigators on Capitol Hill have shown a willingness to investigate Meadows’ private dealings, beyond the scope of how he directly aided Trump during his anti-democratic and violent crusade to cling to power. According to two sources familiar with the matter, the Jan. 6 committee has asked some witnesses specific questions about Meadows’ financial arrangements with other Trump advisers who sought to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. The line of questioning made it clear to witnesses that the committee members were searching for signs of legally dubious payments. (The congressional Jan. 6 investigation is of course separate from the Biden Justice Department’s probe, though the House select committee does have the power to make criminal referrals to the feds.)
“Mark is gonna get pulverized…and it’s really sad,” predicts one of Trump’s current legal advisers. “Based on talking to [Meadows in the past, it felt like] he doesn’t actually believe any of this [election-theft] stuff, or at least not most of it. He was obviously just trying to perform for Trump, and now he’s maybe screwed himself completely.”
As the Jan. 6 hearings on Capitol Hill have unfolded — and particularly after former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony before the committee late last month — questions of Meadows’ own potential liability over his conduct before and after the riot have intensified, including among Trump’s former and current legal brass. “I do think criminal prosecutions are possible,” says Ty Cobb, a former top lawyer in the Trump White House. “Possible for Trump and Meadows certainly. And for the others, including lawyers, who engaged fraudulently in formal proceedings or investigations.”
In her appearance before the January 6 Committee, Hutchinson revealed that White House staff repeatedly warned her former boss that the rally goers on the mall who Trump encouraged to march on the Capitol were armed. Once informed of the threat, Meadows allegedly shrugged it off. Meadows himself, however, seemed to anticipate that the January 6 rally could turn ugly, according to Hutchinson’s testimony. “Things might get real, real bad on Jan. 6,” she quoted him warning in the days before the insurrection.
Meadows was back in the committee’s unflattering spotlight on Tuesday, as investigators highlighted how he assured members of Trump’s government that the then-president would concede, while privately encouraging him to keep fighting and aiding him in that scandalous fight.
Legal experts say Meadows’ foreknowledge of the armed mob on the mall, his own expectation that the rally could be “really, really bad,” combined with his inaction could mean potential criminal exposure for the former Trump aide. Rep. Liz Cheney said in early July that messages sent to Hutchinson telling her that she’s “loyal” and urging her to “do the right thing” in her deposition with the committee could prompt a criminal referral from the committee for potential witness tampering. Reporting by CNN and Politico identified the author of those messages as an intermediary for Meadows but the former White House chief of staff’s spokesman denied that he or anyone in his “camp” attempted to sway her testimony.
But Trumpland’s concerted efforts to distance the former president and other protected persons from Meadows comes amid a broader search for someone to take the fall. Cheney’s list of patsies on Tuesday included Trumpist lawyer and “coup memo” author John Eastman — whom, as Rolling Stone reporting in June, Trump’s team has been eyeing — and Sydney Powell, another Trump lawyer. Cheney also named Rep. Scott Perry, who allegedly was part of the push to get the Justice Department to overturn the election.
Though it remains to be seen who will ultimately be saddled with the bulk of the blame and legal baggage, it is clear this collective — long known for petty backbiting and infighting before, during, and after the Trump administration — has no intention of all going down together.
Ultimately, however, the committee hearings have made clear that Trump was repeatedly made aware that he was the legitimate loser of the 2020 election, and the efforts to overturn that election happened at his behest.
“The strategy is to blame people his advisers called ‘the crazies’ for what the president did,” Cheney said at the hearing Tuesday. “This, of course, is nonsense. President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices.”