During a surprise testimony in a courtroom hearing connected to a sprawling criminal conspiracy case in Georgia, Mark Meadows did not recall how a highly scrutinized and recorded phone call at the centre of the case against Donald Trump and 18 allies came to be.
The phone call – during which then-President Trump urged Georgia’s chief elections official to “find” votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state – is among central pieces of evidence in a sprawling racketeering indictment targeting Mr Trump’s efforts to subvert the outcome of 2020 presidential election results in the state.
Mr Meadows, a former White House chief of staff, testified in US District Court in Atlanta on 28 August as part of his effort to move the state case out of Fulton County and into federal court, marking one of the first courtroom battles between the 19 defendants and prosecutors under Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in the largest case against the former president and his allies yet.
He faces two counts in the sprawling 41-count indictment outlining dozens of acts that encompass the conspiracy: one count of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO statute, and one count of solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer.
Mr Meadows said on the stand that he was not sure whether attorneys on the call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger were working for Mr Trump or his campaign. US District Court Judge Steve Jones, shaking his head, asked why Mr Meadows would even allow them on the call without knowing their roles, ABC News reported.
He said that the purpose of the call was to find a “less litigious way” to resolve a dispute over ballot signatures. He testified that he reached out to both Mr Raffensperger himself and a member of his staff, but neither had responded. Mr Trump himself eventually reached out to Mr Raffensperger, according to Mr Meadows.
Ms Willis has subpoenaed Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to testify.
Mr Meadows repeatedly testified that he did not recall setting up the call or how aides connected to the campaign – not the federal government – joined in.
“I dealt with the president’s personal position on a number of things. It’s still a part of my job to make sure the president is safe and secure and able to perform his job,” Mr Meadows said, according to CNN. “Serving the president of the United States is what I do, to be clear.”
His surprise testimony comes two weeks after a grand jury indictment presented the largest and most significant case yet facing Mr Trump and others connected to an alleged racketeering scheme in which they “knowingly and willfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election” to ensure he remained in power.
Mr Trump, Mr Meadows and their 17 other co-defendants were booked in Fulton County jail and released on bond last week. They are scheduled to appear in court for their arraignment hearings on 5 September.
Attorneys for Mr Meadows have asked for the “prompt removal” of the case from Fulton County, citing federal law that allows US officials to remove civil or criminal trials from state court over alleged actions performed “under color” of their offices, with Mr Meadows performing such acts during his “tenure” as White House chief of staff, they wrote in court filings.
His lawyers said they then intend to file a motion to dismiss the indictment “as soon as feasible,” according to attorneys.
“Nothing Mr Meadows is alleged in the indictment to have done is criminal per se,” his attorneys wrote. “One would expect a Chief of Staff to the President of the United States to do these sorts of things.”
Prosecutors, however, have argued that Mr Meadows was acting on behalf of the Trump campaign, performing acts that were “all ‘unquestionably political’ in nature and therefore, by definition, outside the lawful scope of his authority” as chief of staff.
“Even if the defendant somehow had been acting as authorized under federal law (rather than directly contrary to it), that authority would be negated by the evidence of his ‘personal interest, malice, actual criminal intent,’” they wrote.
During the hearing on Monday, which was not broadcast, Mr Meadows himself argued in his sworn testimony that he was both a principal figure and an observer in meetings with and about Mr Trump, and was “invited to almost every meeting that the president had,” CNN reported.
“Those were challenging times, bluntly,” he said during his sworn testimony, according to CNN. “I don’t know if anyone was fully prepared for that type of job.”
He also was grilled over false election claims amplified by the former president despite statements from members of his own administration rejecting them, including then-Attorney General Bill Batt telling then-President Trump that allegations of voter fraud are “bull****.”
Mr Meadows said he believed the claims warranted “further investigation” at the time but had “no reason” to doubt Mr Barr, according to CNN.
Mr Meadows is one of five defendants in the Georgia case who want to transfer the case out of Fulton County.
Former assistant US Attorney General Jeffrey Clark and three people wrapped up in the so-called “alternate” elector scheme – David Shafer, Cathy Latham and state Senator Shawn Still – are also asking a judge to move the case to federal court. Mr Trump also is expected to do the same.
Ms Willis also has subpoenaed his former lead investigator Frances Watson.
Mr Meadows met with Ms Watson in December 2020 during a state-run audit of absentee ballot signatures that Ms Watson was overseeing. Mr Trump called her the next day.
On 27 December 2020, Mr Meadows asked if “there was a way to speed up Fulton County signature verification in order to have results before Jan 6” if the Trump campaign can “assist financially”, which Ms Willis is likely to use to bolster prosecutors’ argument that Mr Meadows acted on behalf of the campaign, and is thus not immune from federal protections allowing his removal.
Mr Meadows testified on Monday that he did not “recall reaching out” to Ms Watson.
He also denied that he directed White House aide John McEntee to draft a memo outlining how to delay the certification of electoral college results on 6 January, 2021 during a joint session of Congress that would be targeted by a mob of the former president’s supporters in a violent attempt to upend the election’s outcome.
Mr Meadows “did not ask” Mr McEntee to that, he said, according to CNN. Those allegations outlined in the indictment from Georgia prosecutors “did not happen” and were the “biggest surprise” to him as he read the charging document, Mr Meadows said.
The Georgia case is separate from the US Department of Justice investigation and federal charges against Mr Trump for his efforts to subvert the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. At a separate hearing on Monday, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington DC set a tentative trial date in that case for 4 March, 2024 – one day before Super Tuesday primary election contests.