ATLANTA — UPDATE: A federal judge has denied Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' request to move his Georgia 2020 election case to federal court.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.
ORIGINAL STORY: Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' three-and-a-half-hour testimony was the biggest surprise during Monday's hearing to determine if his case will be moved to federal court.
Meadows and his legal team argue that the case should leave Fulton County because Meadows is a federal officer, and he's facing charges for actions he took in connection with his role as a critical advisor to former President Donald Trump. The bar for removal to federal court, they argue, is a low one.
Prosecutors with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' office dispute that characterization, arguing that Meadows was not acting in his official capacity. Instead, prosecutors allege that Meadows violated the Hatch Act — a 1939 law prohibiting civil service employees, excluding the president and vice president, from engaging in political activity. The call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the Cobb County audit appearance, and other acts alleged in the indictment were not necessary duties, but political actions aimed at keeping Trump in the White House, prosecutors said.
United States District Judge Steve C. Jones did not issue a ruling Monday but says he hopes to make one soon. Meadows' motion is one without a lot of case law on the books, and Jones could create a legal precedent with his decision.
If Jones doesn't make the final call before Sept. 6, Meadows' scheduled arraignment in Fulton County Superior Court will go on as planned. Motions and appeals are expected regardless of the initial outcome. The Meadows ruling could have a large impact on Willis' entire 2020 RICO election case.
Meadows' attorneys: "Not one iota of evidence" that Meadows was trying to impact political process
At its core, the nearly seven hours of testimony and legal arguments boiled down to a dispute over whether or not Meadows was acting in his official capacity during the events alleged in the indictment.
As Jones laid out at the beginning of Monday’s evidentiary hearing, Meadows has the burden of satisfying three legal factors to show that removing his case to federal court is appropriate. Those factors focus on the distinction between whether the defendant was acting “under color of office” or in an unofficial capacity.
If the court determines that Meadows was acting in his official capacity, removal to federal court is likely. If not, the case may remain in Fulton County Superior Court.
To bolster their case, Meadows' attorneys argued that the president’s chief of staff has a broad delegation of federal authority. Meadows testified that his day-to-day responsibilities were nearly “24/7” and included everything from “informal” contacts with policymakers at the state level to consulting on matters of national security and, at times, interfacing with the president’s personal doctor.
Meadows argued that he undertook these actions, like appearing at the Cobb County audit of absentee ballot signatures, to better inform the president. None of the actions alleged in the indictment were outside his scope of chief of staff, he testified.
Meadows’ team also pressed their argument that the procedural bar to remove a case to federal court is “low.” They further argued that any allegation of Hatch Act violation wouldn't be appropriate for a judge to rule on at this stage of the case and shouldn't prevent the case from moving to federal court.
Attorney George Terwilliger said there is “not one iota” of evidence that Meadows was trying to impact the political process of the election. Instead, he argued, Meadows was merely trying to “check the box” and address election fraud allegations ahead of the deadline to certify the presidential election results.
The prosecution: Meadows never defined the scope of his duties under the law
Prosecutors, however, pressed their case that Meadows was acting outside the bounds of his official capacity in the days surrounding the 2020 election, participating in meetings with state legislators and the phone call between then-president Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
In that phone call, Trump said “I just want to find 11,780 votes”— enough votes to flip the results of the election in the state. Meadows testified that he arranged that call at the direction of Mr. Trump.
Meadows said that he believed his conduct satisfied the federal goal of making sure “there was a free and fair election.” He repeatedly said he was not involved in Mr. Trump’s campaign for re-election, testifying that, while he interacted with campaign staffers, he never had a role there.
“I was never anybody in the campaign,” he said.
Raffensperger testified during Monday's hearing that he ignored initial outreach attempts from Meadows. The state's top election official said that he believed it wouldn't be "appropriate" to appear to be influencing law enforcement efforts with investigations into alleged election fraud already underway. Raffensperger added that he initially tried to avoid the Jan. 2 call with Trump.
Prosecutors worked to tie Meadows directly to the Trump campaign, at one point introducing an email exchange primarily between Meadows and Jason Miller, a former adviser for Trump.
Within that exchange, one message showed Meadows writing: “We just need to have someone coordinating the (Trump) electors for the states."
Meadows later testified that he has a habit of using “we” in a broader sense than is typically understood, saying it’s a habit from his days as a U.S. congressman geared primarily towards avoiding taking undue credit for things.
During closing arguments, Chief Senior District Attorney Donald Wakeford said that was difficult to believe, arguing that every action Meadows took was to ensure that Trump was declared the winner of the 2020 election.
“The scope of official duties ends at political activity,” he said.
What could does Monday's hearing mean for the case?
Attorneys for several codefendants, including Trump attorneys Steve Sadow and Jennifer Little, were in the courtroom Monday as the former president weighs whether to take the same removal step as Meadows.
Other co-defendants — former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, Georgia Sen. Shawn Still, former Coffee County GOP chair Cathy Latham, and former Georgia Republican chair David Safer — have also filed motions to move their cases to federal court.
Arraignments for all 19 defendants, including Trump, are set for Sept. 6. The next removal hearing is set for Sept. 18. It's unclear when Jones will rule on Meadow's motion.
If Jones rules that Meadows' case can be removed to federal court, it's possible the other 18 defendants will also head to federal court. There's no clear distinction on the matter as legal experts disagree. Any decision will likely be appealed and could make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Some people believe that there is some old 5th circuit precedent to that effect," said Andrew Fleischman, a defense attorney who is unaffiliated with the case. "There is some reason to believe this will apply to everyone... I think it will be on a case-by-case basis."