WASHINGTON — The House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection voted Wednesday to pursue contempt charges against Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official who refused to answer the committee's questions, even as the committee has agreed to let him come back for another try.
The committee voted 9-0 to pursue criminal charges against Clark, who aligned with Donald Trump as the then-president tried to overturn his election defeat.
The Democratic chairman of the Jan. 6 panel, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said it had received a last-minute notification from Clark's lawyer that he wants to instead invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Thompson said the lawyer had offered “no specific basis for that assertion” and “no facts that would allow the committee to consider it,” but the committee will give him a second chance at a deposition scheduled for Saturday.
“This is, in my view, a last-ditch attempt to delay the Select Committee’s proceedings,” Thompson said. “However, a Fifth Amendment privilege assertion is a weighty one. Even though Mr. Clark previously had the opportunity to make these claims on the record, the Select Committee will provide him another chance to do so.”
Thompson said the committee still proceeded with the contempt vote “as this is just the first step of the contempt process.”
Clark appeared for a deposition last month but refused to answer any questions, citing Trump’s legal efforts to block the committee’s investigation.
The recommendation of criminal contempt charges against Clark will now go to the full House for a vote, though it is unclear if that will be delayed. If the House votes to hold Clark in contempt, the Justice Department will then decide whether to prosecute.
In a transcript of Clark’s aborted Nov. 5 interview released by the panel Tuesday, staff and members of the committee attempted to persuade the former Justice Department official to answer questions about his role as Trump pushed the department to investigate his false allegations of widespread fraud in the election. Clark had become an ally of the former president as other Justice officials pushed back on the baseless claims.
But Clark’s attorney, Harry MacDougald, said during the interview that Clark was protected not only by Trump’s assertions of executive privilege but also several other privileges MacDougald claimed Clark should be afforded. The committee rejected those arguments, and MacDougald and Clark walked out of the interview after around 90 minutes.
According to a report earlier this year by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which interviewed several of Clark’s colleagues, Trump’s pressure culminated in a dramatic White House meeting at which the president ruminated about elevating Clark to attorney general. He did not do so after several aides threatened to resign.
Despite Trump’s false claims about a stolen election — the primary motivation for the violent mob that broke into the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory — the results were confirmed by state officials and upheld by the courts. Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, said in December 2020 that the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the results.
Thompson wrote in Clark’s subpoena that the committee’s probe “has revealed credible evidence that you attempted to involve the Department of Justice in efforts to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power” and his efforts “risked involving the Department of Justice in actions that lacked evidentiary foundation and threatened to subvert the rule of law.”
Wednesday's committee vote came as Trump’s top White House aide at the time, chief of staff Mark Meadows, has agreed to cooperate with the panel on a limited basis after more than two months of negotiations. Meadows has provided some documents and is expected to sit for a deposition as soon as next week, though his lawyer has indicated he will decline to answer specific questions about his conversations with the president.
A lawyer for Meadows, George Terwilliger, said Tuesday that he was working with the committee and its staff on an accommodation that would not require Meadows to waive the executive privileges claimed by Trump or “forfeit the long-standing position that senior White House aides cannot be compelled to testify before Congress.”
Terwilliger said in a statement that “we appreciate the Select Committee’s openness to receiving voluntary responses on non-privileged topics.” He had previously said that Meadows wouldn’t comply with the panel’s September subpoena because of Trump’s privilege claims.
Thompson said Meadows has provided documents to the panel and will soon be interviewed, but the committee “will continue to assess his degree of compliance.”
Still, Meadows’ intention to work with the panel is a victory for the seven Democrats and two Republicans on the panel, especially as they seek interviews with lower-profile witnesses who may have important information to share. The committee has so far subpoenaed more than 40 witnesses and interviewed more than 150 people behind closed doors.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.