Courts & Litigation Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Democracy & Elections

Mark Meadows Takes the Stand

Anna Bower
Tuesday, August 29, 2023, 9:00 PM
A dispatch from the former White House chief of staff’s removal hearing in Atlanta.
The Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, GA, March 23, 2019. (Warren LeMay,,_Atlanta,_GA_(47474765611).jpg; Public Domain)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

It’s Monday morning in federal court in Atlanta, and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, dressed in a navy suit and a baby blue tie, is on the witness stand. 

We’re in court because Meadows, former North Carolina congressman and accused racketeer under Georgia law, is seeking to remove his criminal case from Fulton County court to federal court. It’s the first time he’s spoken in public in more than a year—and it’s as a criminal defendant on a witness stand. 

Sitting across the aisle from me, I spot Donald Trump’s new attorney, Steven Sadow, who appears to be sporting a pair of crocodile-skin cowboy boots. Another Trump attorney, Jennifer Little, is seated next to him. Jeffrey Clark’s attorney, Harry MacDougald, is also here. And I meet an associate who tells me he is with the firm that represents Kenneth Chesebro, the alleged architect of the “fake electors” scheme. (This is useful, because he is able to confirm that it’s pronounced “Chez-bro,” not “Cheesebro,” though Chesebro’s nickname has been, and maybe still is, “The Cheese.”)

When Meadow’s legal team last faced off with Fulton County prosecutors, the matter was heard by a South Carolina state court judge, who ordered Meadows to appear before the special purpose grand jury that was investigating potential criminal interference in the 2020 election in Georgia at the time. Now, 10 months later, Meadows has been indicted, but we’re still not in Fulton County state court.

To get his case “removed” to federal court, Meadows needs to establish three things. The first, that he was a federal officer at the time of the alleged offense, is not in dispute. The second is that the conduct alleged against him has a “causal connection” to federal office. The third is that he has a colorable federal defense against the charges. To satisfy the third prong, Meadows has asserted a federal defense called Supremacy Clause immunity, which shields federal officers from state prosecutions arising from conduct they subjectively and reasonably believed to be “necessary and proper” in carrying out their federal duties.

Meadows’s attorneys have decided to put him on the stand today in support of the second and third prongs of this removal test. That is, they need his testimony to support the notion that his conduct was in some meaningful way an expression of his federal office—not, say, campaign activity or a rogue bit of lawlessness aimed at overturning an election. And they need to show that Meadows subjectively and reasonably believed his actions were “necessary and proper.”

Earlier this morning, at 10 a.m. sharp, a court officer had shouted “All rise!” as U.S. District Judge Steve Jones swept into the room and took his seat behind the bench. And after setting some ground rules on court decorum, Judge Jones called the case: “State of Georgia v. Mark Randall Meadows.” 

Speaking with a southern drawl, the judge explained that this is an evidentiary hearing, meaning that both the prosecution and the defense would have an opportunity to present witness testimony or other evidence relevant to the removal motion. Jones said he will then allow both sides to deliver closing remarks. 

With such housekeeping matters behind him, Jones directed the defense to present its case.

And to everyone’s surprise, Meadows’s lawyers responded by calling their client to the stand. 

Meadows strode to the witness stand, got sworn in, and took his seat, appearing relaxed, even genial. If he was anxious about the outcome of today’s hearing, he certainly didn’t show it. 

Now, Meadows’s defense attorney, George Terwilliger, begins his direct examination of Meadows by instructing the former White House chief of staff to explain the scope and “atmospherics” of his former job. According to Meadows, the chief of staff role is a “24/7” job to advise and assist the president and “to oversee federal operations.”

In carrying out that role, Meadows says, he attended a “variety” of meetings, ranging in subject from national security to military operations to policy decisions to executive orders. While he would sometimes act as the “principal” in such meetings, on other occasions he would merely observe. Meadows explains that Trump “had this style where he would ask you about any given topic” at any given moment of any given day. As a result, Meadows says, he felt the need to observe meetings so that he could “understand what was going on” and advise the president accordingly.

Meadows says he was also “intimately involved” with communications functions in the White House. He would “personally” speak with members of the press on “Pebble Beach,” the media staging area in front of the White House. And he frequently set up or received calls from a variety of officials and other actors, he says. As one example, he describes a call he received from the then-secretary of agriculture, who warned of a potential “protein” shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic. Following that call, Meadows says he set up a call between a group of industry leaders to discuss how to address the problem.

As Meadows testifies about his communications function as chief of staff, Judge Jones interjects: What kind of communications did you make with state officials? Meadows replies that he communicated with state officials about “all types” of issues. Especially during the pandemic, he says, state officials frequently called him about getting federal relief for hospitals. Other calls came from state officials who were “just looking for access to the president.” There were times when he felt like his phone number was “plastered” on the walls, he claims. “The calls kept coming.”

Moving on, Terwilliger asks Meadows to explain how his job as chief of staff intersected with political matters. All policy decisions have a political element, Meadows replies. Part of the job, he says, is understanding how the American people will react to policy proposals.

Especially during an election year, Meadows continues, the “campaign team” took up much of the president’s time. And he points out that his work as chief of staff necessarily intersected with some campaign activities. He recalls, for example, working to get a hostage out of Africa while aboard Air Force One as Trump traveled to a campaign event. “The president’s work went on even as he campaigned,” Meadows says.

Meadows pauses at one point as he talks about the hostage situation, telling the judge he wants to get his words right. “I’m in enough trouble as it is,” he jokes. Judge Jones chuckles at this.

While Meadows stresses that he was never paid or supervised by the campaign, he testifies to interacting with the campaign on a regular basis. During the postelection period, he received an overwhelming number of texts and calls regarding allegations about election fraud or irregularities. To “free up” Trump’s time, Meadows says he usually forwarded the allegations to someone else who could investigate it—the Justice Department, for example, or the campaign legal team. This was part of his function as a “gatekeeper” of access to the president—a task that he found “challenging” with Trump, he says.

Now Terwilliger directs Meadows’s attention to the indictment. As Terwilliger proceeds down the list of allegations, Meadows insists that he did each act in connection with his role as chief of staff—if he did the act at all.

In two instances, Meadows disputes what’s alleged in the indictment. He first quarrels with the allegation found in Act 9, which asserts that Meadows and others met with a group of Pennsylvania legislators at the White House in late November to discuss holding a special session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

“Your honor, to the best of my recollection, I was not actually in this meeting,” Meadows proclaims.

Instead, as Meadows tells it, he was in his office when the Pennsylvania legislators arrived at the White House. After a staffer informed him that three members of the Pennsylvania delegation tested positive for COVID-19, Meadows went down to meet the legislators. He told them that the three people who tested positive for COVID-19 would not be allowed to meet with Trump. Beyond that, Meadows says, “I don’t recall being in that meeting.”

Meadows next disputes Act 19 of the indictment, which alleges that Trump and Meadows asked a White House staffer, identified as John McEntee, to prepare a memo outlining a strategy “for disrupting and delaying the joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021.” While Meadows says that it would not be unusual for the chief of staff to ask individuals for memos, he doesn’t think he would have asked “Johnny McEntee” to write a memo like this. McEntee, he explains, is Trump’s former “body man” who at the time was the head of personnel policy in the White House.

“When this [allegation] came out in the indictment, this was the biggest surprise for me,” Meadows insists.

Judge Jones presses Meadows to be more precise: There’s a difference between not asking for the memo and not being able to recall asking for the memo, he observes. “Which one is it?” Jones queries.

Meadows, in reply, seems a bit unsure of himself. But he ultimately settles on the former: “I can tell you that me asking Johnny McEntee for this kind of memo just didn’t happen,” he says.

As to other acts alleged in the indictment, Meadows admits to doing them but characterizes them as related to his duties as chief of staff. When asked about his visit to a voting center where a signature verification audit was being held in Cobb County in late December 2020, for example, Meadows explains that he was in the Atlanta area to visit his children for the Christmas holidays. He knew that there was “concern” in Cobb County about the signature verification audit, and he “anticipated” that the president would ask about it. He thought that observing the audit in person would allow him to be “informed” about the subject if the president brought it up.

“I observed a very professional operation,” Meadows says about the Cobb audit process. “It was in my opinion being done in all the ways it should be.” When Terwilliger asks if he relayed those observations to the president, Meadows replies: “I did.”

And, while Meadows says he read reports about a supposed “confrontation” between himself and Georgia audit supervisors at the Cobb Civic Center, he denies that any such confrontation occurred. “I believe I acted like a gentleman the whole time,” Meadows claims.

Then Terwilliger asks Meadows about Act 96 of the indictment, which alleges that Meadows sent a text message to Georgia Secretary of State Chief Investigator Frances Watson. The message, the indictment alleges, read in part, “Is there a way to speed up Fulton County signature verification in order to have the results before Jan. 6 if the Trump campaign assist financially?”

Meadows characterizes this as “outreach” to the secretary of state’s office, which he did in his role as chief of staff.

“Can I clarify one thing?” he adds before Terwilliger can move on. He says  the indictment alleges that he reached out to Watson, but he doesn’t think that message was sent to Watson. Meadows says he believes it was sent to Jordan Fuchs, a staffer in the secretary of state’s office.

Finally, Terwilliger ends Meadows’s direct examination on the subject of the infamous Raffensperger call, for which both Meadows and Trump are charged with the felony offense of “solicitation of violation of oath by public officer.” While Meadows admits that he set up that phone call with Raffensperger, he again insists that he did so in his role as chief of staff. He reiterates that his job frequently involved coordinating phone calls between various parties, from “the King of Saudi Arabia” to “local officials.”

Terwilliger now trudges back to the counsel’s table on the right side of the room. Meadows tells Judge Jones that he doesn’t need a break just yet. And Anna Cross—a newly appointed special prosecutor with the district attorney’s office—makes her way to the lectern for cross-examination.

“Good morning, Mr. Meadows,” Cross begins. Meadows, at this point, has been on the stand for nearly an hour and a half, answering his defense attorney’s questions in a seemingly genial and cooperative manner. But Cross observes that Terwilliger asked Meadows questions in a “lawyerly way.” She has a different set of questions for Meadows, she announces.

Speaking in a brusque, clipped tone, Cross presses Meadows to articulate the “federal interest or policy” advanced by each of his actions alleged in indictment. Meadows, in turn, tries out several responses: “management of the president’s time”; advising the president “on issues that may or may not come up”; “America’s interest in free and fair elections.”

Cross zeroes in on the latter “federal policy,” asking Meadows to explain the role of the president in state elections. Meadows replies that there is some role for the federal government in that area. He notes that the Justice Department has a role in investigating fraud allegations and another federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, deals with cyber threats to voting systems.

At one point, as Meadows reiterates his view that there is an “interconnection” between state elections and federal policy, Judge Jones interrupts: “Let me ask this,” he says. Is there a role for the president in state elections under Article II of the Constitution?

“I don’t know enough to opine on that,” Meadows replies sheepishly. “That’s fair,” Jones replies.

Cross, for her part, doubles down on quizzing Meadows about the federal policy at stake. She narrows the scope of her prior question: “Do you know of any federal role in the certification of state elections?” she asks. “I do not,” Meadows concedes.

Next, Cross grills Meadows on the message he allegedly sent to either Watson or Fuchs, in which he queried whether financial assistance from the Trump campaign could “speed up” the Fulton County signature verification audit. In reply, Meadows claims that he wasn’t making a “financial offer” on behalf of the campaign. Prior to sending that message, he explains, the state of Wisconsin held a recount, which the state agreed to do so long as it was paid for by the Trump campaign. In Fulton County, Meadows says, “we” wanted an answer “quickly.” And considering the circumstances surrounding the recount in Wisconsin, he asked Fuchs about campaign assistance in order to advise the president on whether the audit would place a “financial burden” on a state entity.

Cross follows up: But you had no ability to offer federal funds, right? “No,” Meadows admits.

Cross then observes that Meadows used the phrase “we wanted an answer quickly” when discussing the text to Fuchs. Who is “we”? she queries. In response, Meadows claims that “we” is a “default” pronoun he got in the habit of using during his tenure as a congressman. He got in the habit of using it, he says, so as to not take too much credit for himself. In discussing the Fuchs text, he continues, it was not accurate to use the term “we.” He contends that it was the president and the campaign who wanted a quick answer, not him.

As Cross pivots to questions about the Raffensperger call, Meadows says Trump asked him to set up the call. He can’t recall specifics about how the call came about, he says, but he did attempt to reach out to Raffensperger “at least twice” before the Jan. 2, 2021, phone call.

Meadows testifies that he believed the purpose of the call was to reach some sort of “compromise” between Trump attorneys and the secretary of state’s office with respect to pending litigation in Georgia. The purpose, he insists, was to find a “less litigious” way to get a signature verification audit in Fulton County. “The president said he wanted that,” Meadows claims. And that was a goal of the campaign? Cross asks. “I don’t know. … I don’t speak for the campaign,” Meadows replies.

Cross then asks Meadows whether there were any attorneys on the call. Meadows mentions Cleta Mitchell, a former Trump campaign attorney who told the Jan. 6 committee that she had previously represented Meadows as a client and had been “close” to him for several years. He struggles to remember the names of two other campaign attorneys on the call: Alex Kaufman and Kurt Hilbert, whom prosecutors had subpoenaed last week to testify at this very hearing.

The names of the attorneys aren’t the only thing Meadows can’t recall. He claims he wasn’t clear on the roles of the trio of attorneys; the extent of his understanding of their role was that they were involved in a lawsuit. He didn’t know if they were involved in the campaign or represented the president personally, he says.

Meadows says this even though Mitchell told the Jan. 6 committee that she got involved with Trump’s 2020 election efforts because Meadows called her the day after the election and asked her to travel to Atlanta.

After a lunch break, Cross interrogates Meadows on his beliefs—and Trump’s beliefs—about allegations of election fraud in Georgia. Meadows asserts that Trump really was convinced that he had won Georgia. Meadows, for his part, remains noncommittal: At the time, he says, he believed  that there were allegations that needed “further investigation” in order to ascertain “whether President Trump or President Biden won Georgia.”

Cross next shifts to Meadows’s role in the “fake electors” plot. When asked if he had “any role” in coordinating the fake electors, Meadows replies “No, I did not.”

The prosecution then submits its first exhibit. It’s an email exchange between Meadows and a Trump campaign adviser, Jason Miller. In the email, Meadows appears to attach a copy of the “Chesebro memo” that set out a strategy for coordinating “alternate” electors across several contested states. “Let’s discuss,” Meadows tells Miller. In a later email, Meadows writes, “If you are on it then never mind the meeting. We just need to have someone coordinating the electors for States."

Again focusing on Meadows’s use of the pronoun “we,” Cross asks: “Who is we?” The campaign, Meadows replies.

“That’s all my questions, thank you Mr. Meadows,” Cross says as she concludes her cross-examination.

On redirect, Terwilliger picks up where Cross left off. What did Meadows mean by “we” in the email he sent to Jason Miller? Meadows reiterates that he has a habit of overusing the pronoun “we.” It’s a “leftover” from my congressional days, Meadows insists. Here, he continues, I meant “the campaign,” not “me with the campaign together.”

Terwilliger then asks Meadows to clarify what he hoped to achieve by setting up the Raffensperger call. Meadows says he hoped both sides on the call could find some sort of “resolution.” Doing so, he insists, would “get things off the president’s plate” so the administration could focus on the “peaceful transfer of power” ahead of Jan. 6. 

And with that, after more than three hours on the stand, the former White House chief of staff is done testifying.

After a short break, the prosecution calls its first witness: Kurt Hilbert, the attorney who worked on the Trump campaign’s litigation in Georgia and who was on the Jan. 2, 2021, phone call. Hilbert, a burly man sporting a charcoal suit, takes his seat at the witness stand. Hilbert testifies that, in the lead-up to the Jan. 2 call, he was at his office preparing for an upcoming hearing related to one of the Trump campaign’s pending lawsuits in federal court in Georgia. Hilbert says that Alex Kaufman came into his office and said, “There’s going to be a call.” He says his understanding  was that the call was going to involve the president. And he reveals for the first time that a separate call took place prior to the Raffensperger call. That call, he says, included Trump, Meadows, Mitchell, and Hilbert’s legal team.

Hilbert refuses to testify more about this, however. When Cross presses him to reveal more about the substance of either call, he claims that doing so would violate Rule 408 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which bars the admission of statements related to certain compromise offers or negotiations.

On cross-examination, Hilbert similarly refuses to discuss the substance of the call, though he tells Meadows’s attorney that he believed Meadows participated in the call in his capacity as chief of staff.

It is unclear what the point of Hilbert’s testimony is—except maybe that Hilbert was a lawyer working for the Trump campaign, not the White House or any federal agency, and the White House chief of staff was engaging directly in the campaign’s litigation.

Following Hilbert’s brief appearance, Judge Jones directs the state to call its next witness. “The state calls Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger,” Cross announces.

Raffensperger, the mild-mannered engineer turned Georgia secretary of state, strolls into the room through the doors to my left. After being sworn in just after 3:30 p.m., Raffensperger begins by explaining that he is the chief elections officer in the state of Georgia. Describing how elections operate in the state, Raffensperger says that neither the federal government nor the president plays any role in certifying the state’s elections.

Under questioning by Cross, Raffensperger turns to the circumstances behind the Jan. 2, 2021, phone call. He says that his deputy secretary of state, Fuchs, reached out and said that the White House called and wanted to speak with him. “It was Mr. Meadows who reached out to her,” Raffensperger testifies. 

While Raffensperger says he was initially reluctant to take the call, he ultimately agreed to speak to Trump at Fuchs’s suggestion. According to Raffensperger, his understanding was that Trump wanted to speak with him about election-related matters.

“Those were Trump campaign lawyers. I thought it was a campaign call,” Raffensperger says.

Judge Jones interjects to ask if Governor Brian Kemp had already certified the election at this point. “Yes, your honor,” Raffensperger replies. So, Jones wonders aloud, was there “anything to settle” at this point in time? “I don’t think so, your honor,” Raffensperger replies.

As Raffensperger testifies, Cross plays several excerpts from the call. In one excerpt, Meadows raises the prospect of getting “access to the secretary of state’s data” to either validate or invalidate claims of election fraud.

Who wanted that data? Cross asks. “The Trump campaign,” Raffensperger replies.

As Cross wraps up Raffensperger’s direct examination, Michael Francisco strides to the lectern to conduct cross-examination on behalf of Meadows. At Francisco's prompting, Raffensperger agrees that there can be a “law enforcement function” in investigating voter fraud allegations. And, when asked if there was anything inappropriate about Meadows’s statements on the call, Raffensperger replies, “I didn’t take it as inappropriate.”

On redirect, Cross asks Raffensperger a single question: When the federal government investigates voter fraud allegations, do they ask you to hand over data to the campaign? No, Raffensperger says. They ask you to send data to the FBI agents on the case.

Raffensperger, who looks relieved to be done, scurries away from the witness stand as Cross indicates that she has no further questions. While the district attorney’s office has subpoenaed two additional witnesses to testify today—Kaufman and Watson—it appears that plan has been scrapped. As the clock ticks toward 5:00 p.m., I suspect most of us in the gallery are somewhat relieved by this development.

First up to argue the motion is Terwilliger, who begins by complaining that this hearing, which is supposed to be about removal to federal court, “felt a lot more like Mr. Meadows being tried” for the alleged violations. The threshold for removal under the statute, he tells Judge Jones, is among the “lowest” burdens imaginable. Here, Terwilliger continues, Meadows’s testimony clearly establishes that his conduct was related to his federal duties. And there’s no reason to find that his testimony was not credible, Terwilliger says.

Focusing on the Raffensperger call, Terwilliger admits that Meadows used the term “we” on the call. But Terwilliger reminds Jones that Meadows overuses the term “we.” “It’s a weakness in his rhetoric,” he acknowledges.

Terwilliger points out that Meadows testified that he was simply trying to resolve open questions and “land the plane” by Jan. 6 in order to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power. There is not “one iota” of evidence that Meadows was trying to “effectuate” any result with respect to the 2020 election, he claims.

Turning to the scope of Meadow’s duties as a federal officer, Terwilliger paints a sweeping portrait of his role as chief of staff. “He is federal operations,” Terwilliger insists. “Even a mistake on his part is not enough to defeat his right to removal.”

At this, Judge Jones wonders aloud if Terwilliger’s view would place any limit on what the chief of staff could do. Terwilliger eventually replies that Meadows would “obviously” be outside the scope of his duties if he “shot a protester in Lafayette Park.” In this case, however, Terwilliger contends that Meadows’s conduct was “squarely within his duties.”  

Now Donald Wakeford treads to the lectern to deliver an argument on behalf of the Fulton County district attorney’s office. Wakeford begins by ridiculing the expansive view of Meadows’s duties as chief of staff that Terwilliger put forward moments ago. Under that view, Wakeford says, Meadows is the “embodiment” of federal operations. “It has no horizon. It never ends,” he tells Jones. “They haven’t offered a scope of office, they have simply said there is no limit.” 

Wakeford contends that no executive branch employee can use his or her office to interfere with the results of a state election. Yet the email Meadows sent to Miller regarding the fake electors shows that Meadows was trying to do just that. And he brokered deals on behalf of the campaign even though he had no lawful authority to do so under federal law, Wakeford says. 

Before Wakeford returns to his seat, Jones peppers him with a few questions. Noting that Meadows has disputed two of the “overt acts” alleged in the indictment, Jones wonders if that would be sufficient to negate the state’s case against removal. Wakeford contends that it does not. Under Georgia’s RICO law, he explains, the state does not need to prove every overt act alleged in the indictment. 

Next, Jones observes that removal is a “low” bar. What does Wakeford have to say about that? In reply, Wakeford stresses that as low as it may be, “there is still a bar to clear.” Simply being a federal officer is not enough, and Meadows has not met his burden here, he says. 

At this point it’s nearly 5:45 p.m., and Jones looks ready to call it a day. But before he does, Terwilliger pops back up to make a final request from the defense team. The state’s case, he says, “continues to move apace.” He urges Jones to enter a “prompt determination” on removal. 

Judge Jones responds by saying that the court will try to act “as fast as possible.” But he notes that this case will likely set precedent for future cases, and there isn’t much case law to guide his decision. Finally, he observes that arraignments have been set for Sept. 6 in Fulton County Superior Court. “If I do not issue an order by then, Mr. Meadows must show up to that arraignment,” he says. 

And with that, we’re finally done. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misidentified the attorney who cross-examined Brad Raffensperger. The article has been updated for accuracy.

Anna Bower is Lawfare’s Legal Fellow and Courts Correspondent. Anna holds a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Cambridge and a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School. She joined Lawfare as a recipient of Harvard’s Sumner M. Redstone Fellowship in Public Service. Prior to law school, Anna worked as a judicial assistant for a Superior Court judge in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit of Georgia. She also previously worked as a Fulbright Fellow at Anadolu University in Eskişehir, Turkey. A native of Georgia, Anna is based in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

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