ATLANTA (AP) — A judge on Wednesday ordered former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to testify before a special grand jury that's investigating whether President Donald Trump and his allies illegally tried to sway Georgia's results in the 2020 election.
Meadows, a former GOP congressman, is a key figure in the investigation. He traveled to Georgia, sat in on Trump's phone calls with state officials and coordinated and communicated with outside influencers who were either encouraging or discouraging the pressure campaign.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis opened the investigation last year into actions taken by Trump and others to overturn his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the state. Meadows is just one of several associates and advisers of the Republican former president whose testimony Willis has sought.
Because Meadows doesn't live in Georgia, Willis, a Democrat, had to use a process that involved getting a judge where he lives in South Carolina to order him to appear. First, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who's overseeing the special grand jury, signed off on a petition certifying that Meadows was a "necessary and material witness."
Now, Circuit Court Judge Edward Miller in Pickens County, South Carolina, has honored McBurney's finding and ordered Meadows to testify, Willis spokesman Jeff DiSantis confirmed.
Meadows attorney Jim Bannister told The Associated Press that his client was "weighing all options," including appeals.
"Nothing final until we see the order," he said.
Willis has been fighting similar battles — mostly with success — in courts around the country as she seeks to compel Trump allies to testify. But an appeals court in Texas has indicated it may not recognize the validity of the Georgia summonses, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene after a federal appeals court last week ordered him to testify.
In the petition seeking Meadows' testimony, Willis wrote that he attended a Dec. 21, 2020, meeting at the White House with Trump and others "to discuss allegations of voter fraud and certification of Electoral College votes from Georgia and other states."
The next day, Willis wrote, Meadows made a "surprise visit" to Cobb County, just outside Atlanta, where an audit of signatures on absentee ballot envelopes was being conducted. He asked to observe the audit but wasn't allowed to because it wasn't open to the public, the petition says.
Meadows also sent emails to Justice Department officials after the election alleging voter fraud in Georgia and elsewhere and requesting investigations, Willis wrote. And he took part in a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, during which Trump suggested that Raffensperger, the state's top elections official and a Republican, could "find" enough votes to overturn the president's narrow loss in the state.
According to a transcript of the call with Raffensperger, Meadows said Trump's team believed that "not every vote or fair vote and legal vote was counted. And that's at odds with the representation from the secretary of state's office." He goes on to say he hopes they can agree on a way "to look at this a little bit more fully."
Raffensperger disputed the assertions, addressing Trump, "We don't agree that you have won."
After the election, Meadows was widely seen in the White House as a chief instigator of Trump's fixation on the election, passing along debunked conspiracies about fraud that other officials were forced to swat down. He pushed one theory that people in Italy had changed votes in the U.S. with satellite technology, a claim that former Justice Department official Richard Donoghue labeled "pure insanity."
On the legal front, in a court filing this week, Meadows' lawyer Bannister argued that executive privilege and other rights shield his client from testifying.
Bannister asserted in a filing that Meadows has been instructed by Trump "to preserve certain privileges and immunities attaching to his former office as White House Chief of Staff." And Willis' petition calls for him "to divulge the contents of executive privileged communications with the President," Bannister wrote.
Meadows previously invoked that privilege in a fight against subpoenas issued by the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Meadows has been fighting investigations into the violent 2021 insurrection since last year and has so far avoided having to testify about his role and his knowledge of the former president's actions. He turned over thousands of texts to the House Jan. 6 committee before eventually refusing to do an interview.
The House held Meadows in contempt of Congress for defying the subpoena, but the Justice Department declined to prosecute.
Special grand juries in Georgia cannot issue indictments. Instead, they can gather evidence and compel testimony and then can recommend further action, including criminal charges, in a final report. It is ultimately up to the district attorney to decide whether to seek an indictment from a regular grand jury.
Grand jury secrecy is "paramount" in South Carolina, Bannister wrote. Because the special grand jury is expected to ultimately issue a public report, ordering Meadows to testify would violate his state right to privacy, Bannister argued.
McBurney, the Fulton County Superior Court judge, has made clear in rulings on other attempts by potential witnesses to avoid or delay testimony that he considers the special grand jury's investigation to be a criminal proceeding. He has also stressed a need for secrecy for the panel's workings.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Jill Colvin and Meg Kinnard in New York contributed.