Dec 22, 2021

The Jan. 6 investigation

The Jan. 6 investigation

Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows is being held in contempt of Congress.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows is being held in contempt of Congress. Plus, a question about polarization and bipartisan bills.

Former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows / Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows / Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Holiday schedule.

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You'll hear from us briefly next week to wish you happy holidays and reflect on the new year, and then we'll be back in your inbox on January 3rd (and I'll be writing to you from rural West Texas, where I'm hiding out until February).

Andrew Yang.

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30,000+

This week, Tangle broke 30,000 subscribers. With all the craziness in my personal life I forgot to pause and celebrate, so I just wanted to say thank you. THANK YOU! This was a major milestone, and one I wanted to hit before 2022. It's amazing to see this idea grow, this newsletter become a community, this format turn into a website, podcast, and media outfit. I am so grateful for everyone looking for a better way of navigating political news who has been willing to give us a shot.


Quick hits.

  1. President Biden delivered remarks on the Omicron variant yesterday, laying out plans to give federal support to hospitals and expand testing. (The remarks)
  2. 1,400 union workers at four Kellogg’s plants ended a 2.5 month strike yesterday after receiving a new contract. It was one of the largest worker strikes in the U.S. (The deal)
  3. The DOJ reversed a ruling that would have required federal inmates released to home confinement during the pandemic to return to prison when the pandemic-related national emergency ended. (The reversal)
  4. Harvard professor Charles Lieber was found guilty of lying about his ties to the Chinese government and his involvement in a Chinese talent recruitment plan. (The charges)
  5. The U.S. population grew by just 0.1% over the last year, its slowest growth ever, thanks to the pandemic, a decrease in migration, decreased fertility and increased mortality rates. (The numbers)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The January 6th commission. The House committee investigating the riots at the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6th voted to hold former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress over his refusal to cooperate with the probe. The full House voted on the measure, which passed by a 222-to-208 vote, with just two Republicans — Reps. Liz Cheney (WY) and Adam Kinzinger (IL) — voting “yes" with Democrats. The Justice Department will now decide whether to pursue the contempt referral, a misdemeanor criminal offense that is punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

Reminder: There are several investigations happening right now. One is in Congress, where members of this House committee have interviewed over 300 witnesses and collected more than 30,000 documents about the events leading up to January 6 and what happened on that day. In October, the same committee also voted to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress (we covered that here).

Then there are the Justice Department investigations into the riots. More than 700 people have been charged for various crimes ranging from trespassing to assaulting a police officer. Last week, Robert Palmer was sentenced to more than five years in prison for throwing a fire extinguisher at an officer. A few days later Devlyn Thompson was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for hurling a speaker at an officer and then hitting him with a baton.

What happened with Meadows? Former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was an important target for the committee because he had a unique level of access to Trump and his staff leading up to January 6th. Initially, Meadows refused to cooperate, but then he handed over 9,000 pages of texts, emails and other communications he had on and around January 6th. When subpoenaed to testify, he once again refused, citing executive privilege.

Last week, Rep. Cheney read some of the text messages sent and received by Meadows during the January 6th riots. Included were messages from Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, and Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Brian Kilmeade.

“He’s got to condemn this s-— ASAP. The Capitol Police tweet is not enough,” Trump Jr. told Meadows. Meadows responded: “I’m pushing it hard. I agree.”

“We need an Oval Office address," Trump Jr. wrote back. "He has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand."

“Hey Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home ... this is hurting all of us ... he is destroying his legacy,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham texted Meadows.

“Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol?” Sean Hannity asked Meadows during the riot.

Other texts came from people inside the house chamber, like members of Congress and reporters. “Hey, Mark, protestors are literally storming the Capitol,” read one text. “Breaking windows on doors. Rushing in. Is Trump going to say something?” Another was from Jake Sherman, who runs the insider Congressional newsletter Punchbowl News. "Do something for us," Sherman said. "We are under siege at the Capitol. There's an armed standoff outside the House chamber door. We're helpless."

Meadows has sued the panel, asking a court to invalidate subpoenas for being overly broad and burdensome. His lawyer George Terwilliger says he cooperated by handing over the documents but he should not be compelled to testify. “The Select Committee’s true intentions in dealing with Mr. Meadows have been revealed when it accuses him of contempt citing the very documents his cooperation has produced," Terwilliger said.

Today, we're going to take a look at the responses to this new evidence and the contempt charges against Meadows. This is not an attempt to retell the events of January 6th and what led up to them (though that might be the focus of a future edition), or to settle disputes about allegations of election fraud.

We'll look at some commentary from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right says the texts show Jan. 6th was unorganized and unplanned.
  • Fox News hosts have condemned the riots in public and private.
  • Some still blame Trump, saying the texts show his allies knew the "Stop the Steal" movement was built on lies.

In RedState, the blogger Bonchie said the texts showed there was "no organized coup" and that even Trump's family was unsure what to do.

"The biggest takeaway from this is that there is no evidence here of some grand conspiracy to overthrow the US government as Nancy Pelosi, Liz Cheney, and others have publicly speculated," Bonchie wrote. "Are we to believe that Donald Trump orchestrated 'what happened on January 6th' but didn’t let his own son in on it? Or that Trump didn’t share his plans with any of his closest confidantes in the media? That belabors belief, especially since Meadows himself responded to those texts in agreement, noting that he was coordinating with the president on how to respond.

"It is abundantly clear at this point that whatever you think of Donald Trump, what happened on January 6th was as much a surprise to him as anyone else," Bonchie said. "The idea that he hatched and led some master plan in an attempt to seize power and remain in office never made any sense given what we know. Besides, it makes even less sense when you consider that it…didn’t happen. Normally, when you want to enact a coup, you actually, you know, enact a coup. Instead, Trump denounced what occurred, even if it was a few hours later than some would have liked. He then left the White House without any objections."

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said the text messages prove his colleagues are principled and the investigation is a sham.

"The Jan. 6 committee has somehow awarded itself the power to seize the personal communications of its political enemies and then make them public," Carlson said. "The argument is really simple: Turn over your text messages or we're going to send you to jail. Let's not lie about this. The point of this exercise is not to uncover crimes. The January 6 committee hasn't found any crimes, and at this point will not find any crimes. The point is to harm and humiliate the people you disagree with politically, and that's what they're doing.

"Three Fox anchors sent messages to Mark Meadows, and none of them cheered what was happening at the Capitol on Jan. 6," Carlson said. "In fact, they were upset by it, even in private, when they assume no one was listening. And that shouldn't surprise you. These are principled people, what they say in public is not that far from what they say over text message... So Fox anchors on TV and in private opposed the BLM riots in the summer of 2020. Fox anchors opposed the riot on Capitol Hill in January 2021. It turns out that Fox anchors opposed riots. All riots. No matter who's rioting. And we're the only news anchors in the United States of America who do this. The other channels wait to see who the rioters voted for, and then they respond accordingly, as you may have noticed."

Some conservatives, like Michael Brendan Dougherty, say Trump Jr.'s text saying things had "gotten out of hand" show he knew his dad was telling lies.

"Donald Trump’s claims of massive election fraud (only in the states he lost, by the way) were treated by people around him as a kind of naughty habit that had to be tolerated or indulged," Dougherty wrote. "When the people who treated these claims very seriously started acting like they were true — when they tried to 'Stop the Steal' by interrupting the ceremony in which Congress certifies the results of the presidential election — then it had 'gone too far and gotten out of hand.'

"In the months after January 6, the politically correct move for Trump’s cable-news apologists has been to ignore the fact that the people who set about 'investigating' the supposed vote fraud have turned up nothing of consequence or merit," Dougherty wrote. "Or, it has been to focus obsessively on the potential involvement of the FBI or other intel agencies in the riots, to speculate about who may have been planted as agent provocateurs in the crowd. This is worth inquiring about, especially after the FBI’s cack-handed work trying to instigate a kidnapping plot against Governor Whitmer went south. But the riot at the Capitol happened because President Donald Trump simply lied, and lied, and lied."


What the left is saying.

  • The left says the texts show Trump refused to act promptly to stop the riots.
  • New evidence shows Meadows was attempting to subvert the election.
  • He has no legal grounds to refuse to testify.

In The Washington Post, Greg Sargent said the report recommending contempt charges for Meadows makes it a lot harder to whitewash Jan. 6th.

"The report discloses that the committee has obtained a text message indicating that Meadows was 'pushing hard' to 'condemn this s--t,' meaning Meadows was urging Trump to publicly call off the rioters. Here’s what this really means: Meadows almost certainly has direct knowledge of how Trump responded to all these repeated demands that he call off the violent assault. The report says the committee wants to question Meadows about this, but he’s refusing to answer any questions. What is it that Meadows does not want to testify to?

"Well, we know from press accounts, such as this Post report, that Trump watched the violent assault unfold on TV and ignored many frantic pleas that he step in," Sargent wrote. "One Trump adviser told The Post that Trump was enjoying the spectacle of his followers fighting on his behalf. We also know from CNN that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) apparently screamed similar pleas at Trump by phone as rioters tried to break into McCarthy’s office. McCarthy subsequently recounted that Trump responded: 'Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.'"

In USA Today, Dennis Aftergut said Mark Meadows is "sinking in quicksand."

"Please reconsider, [Meadows'] experienced lawyer, George Terwilliger, in effect asked the committee on Monday. 'It would ill-serve the country to rush to judgment on the matter,' he plead by letter. 'I respectfully ask your indulgence to explain.' It was not the kind of letter a lawyer on firm ground sends," Aftergut said. "If the committee’s report were not rock solid, Meadows would simply wait for the careful Attorney General Merrick Garland to decline to prosecute.

"Then there was a PowerPoint presentation Meadows gave the committee. It described strategies for overturning the election, including 'declaring a national security emergency and seizing paper ballots,' according to The Washington Post. Former Army Col. Phil Waldron, who was working with Trump’s lawyers, apparently circulated the PowerPoint," Aftergut wrote. "The Select Committee’s Sunday report contains evidence showing that Meadows was likely up to his ears in trying to arrange to overturn the election. That could potentially subject him to multiple criminal charges, including seditious conspiracy."

In Slate, William Saletan said the texts have a chilling lesson.

"Shortly after 2:30, Trump sent out a tweet urging his followers to 'stay peaceful.' That tweet has been cited as proof that he tried to end the crisis," Saletan wrote. "But the texts, combined with other evidence, show that trusted figures in Trump’s orbit were asking him to do more. They wanted him to tell the rioters to leave the Capitol and go home. On the surface, this looks like a small difference. But Trump refused to do it. Why?

"The simplest answer is that, as his prior behavior demonstrated, he saw the mob as leverage in a last-ditch effort to overturn the election," Saletan wrote. "He had summoned his followers to Washington to pressure Congress to halt the certification of the election, and the pressure had succeeded. If he were to disperse the mob—not just ask it to curtail its violence—he would lose his leverage. So, for nearly two hours, he held out. That’s what the texts are showing us: that the president was being asked to make a specific concession, and that he refused to do so."


My take.

There's a little bit of a bait and switch going on here.

For starters, let me just say that I don't like calling what happened on January 6th an attempted "coup" or an "insurrection." It was a riot — a political rally gone mad, a brazen attempt to destroy the Capitol, incite violence against members of Congress, and delay certification of the election on concocted charges that the 2020 election was stolen (it wasn't, though there are plenty of reasons to criticize the media, "Big Tech," etc — an argument for another day). But "coups" and "insurrections" don't usually involve half-naked guys in Viking hats or dudes cracking Coors Lights and taking selfies in Nancy Pelosi's office. When coups happen, you might see the military murdering civilians in the streets and then putting a democratically elected leader in prison. They're happening right now all over the world. I find the word "riot" a much better descriptor of Jan. 6th than "coup" or "insurrection" (though if you're going to use one, insurrection — a violent uprising against the government — is much preferred).

That's not to excuse what happened on Jan. 6th or anything close to it. On Jan. 7th I wrote that Trump's legacy was forever tarnished by that day and I meant it. Police officers were beaten, one of the most important places in our country was defaced and vandalized, and dozens of people prowled the Capitol with the literal stated intent to kill members of Congress.

Some of them were carrying weapons, not beer, and some had the military experience to commit coordinated violence if they wanted to. I had friends locked inside the Capitol building that day, and some of them are still dealing with the trauma of what they thought was a near-death experience or being captured by the mob. Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter, was shot and killed. Trump himself bears a great deal of the responsibility for what happened. It was an awful day in our history.

The "bait and switch," though, is that the scariest thing about Jan. 6th wasn't actually the violence. What the January 6th commission (and subsequent reporting since then) has uncovered is that Trump's team did, in fact, pass around various plans on how to stop the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in U.S. history. This is something I've previously downplayed and underestimated, but I was wrong. We now have hard evidence that Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis drafted two of those memos, one saying Pence "should simply refuse to open envelopes from states whose election results Trump considered to be fraudulent." You can read the memos for yourself here.

And this is just one example. We also have John Eastman's memos and various PowerPoints that were being circulated among Trump officials about potential strategies to keep him in office. Of course, we also know Trump himself was pressuring election officials to "find votes" and we recently found out a Trump aide even sent someone to a Georgia election worker's home — an election worker who was making $16 an hour — in order to try to strong-arm her into saying there was fraud she didn't believe there was. In the messages Meadows turned over to Congress, there are emails where he expresses his "love" for the idea of getting GOP legislators to send alternate electors to Congress, which would have caused an immediate Constitutional crisis.

These are just a few of many disturbing examples of how the former president or people in his circle tried to derail his exit from the White House, many of which Meadows participated in or observed directly.

Do I want answers about potential FBI involvement in the riots? Or the "pipe bomber" who we mysteriously have no more information on? Or whether some Capitol Police let the rioters through? Yes, yes and yes. Are some of the rioters being overcharged? Yes. Do Democrats want to make this as politically painful for Republicans as possible? Of course. Does any of that absolve Mark Meadows or mean he should be able to avoid testifying? No. Just like Bannon, his claims of executive privilege are on flimsy legal footing. And given the vital information he's already brought forward, I would love to see him answer questions before Congress.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


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Your questions, answered.

Q: It feels like there are fewer bipartisan things being passed as painting the other party as evil becomes higher on everyone's priority list. Where does this lead? At some point, we won't be able to pass anything without one party completely controlling things, right? Is there a possible change that would make it useful to work with the other party?

— Dave, Seattle, Washington

Tangle: There are some things that will always be passed, like military budgets and short-term spending packages (to keep the government from shutting down). I think what we have now is actually near rock bottom — which is that everyone just stuffs small amendments onto these "must-have" bills in order to get certain things passed into law.

However, it's worth noting that, despite lots of commentary otherwise, the last couple of years have been more bipartisan than you might imagine. Several Covid-19 relief packages were passed under Trump and Biden with bipartisan support. So was the infrastructure bill and a ban on imports from Xinjiang. Congress even passed a massive anti-corruption bill on a bipartisan basis, though it had to be tucked into a national defense spending bill.

So things may not be as bad as they look. I can think of dozens of changes that would help, though: Reforming campaign finance rules so politicians are given incentives to act for constituents and not donors. A media that demonizes less. Potentially, even term limits (though there are downsides). A thriving third party (or fourth, or fifth). And perhaps even filibuster reforms — not abolishing it, but making it easier for votes and debate to happen so we can at least see where members stand.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Some $100 billion has been stolen from the U.S. government's Covid-19 relief programs, most of it via unemployment fraud, according to a new Secret Service report. The estimate is based on Labor Department data and a series of Secret Services cases. The $100 billion is around 3% of the $3.4 trillion dispersed, but the sheer size of the pot became a major attraction for organized criminals and hackers who had people's personal information. More than 150 defendants in 95 criminal cases have been prosecuted in cases related to the Paycheck Protection Program alone. The Associated Press has the story.


Numbers.

  • 2,300. The number of text messages Mark Meadows turned over to Congress.
  • 6,800. The number of pages of text messages Mark Meadows turned over to Congress.
  • 727. The number of people who have been charged in the Capitol riots.
  • 30,000+. The number of documents the Jan. 6 commission says it has received.
  • 300+. The number of witnesses the commission says it has interviewed.

Have a nice day.

2020 saw a huge surge in charitable giving — one that set all-time records. But 2021 looks like it could be on pace to break it. Americans donated $2.7 billion on Giving Tuesday this year, a 9% jump from last year (many Tangle readers were a part of this giving!) In 2020, Americans donated a total of $471 billion, a 5% jump from 2019. So far, 2021 is approaching that number, and we still have December 31 on the calendar — which is one of the most charitable days of the year. Axios has the story about our giving ways, and how many major companies are getting into the mix.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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