WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 — but the panel 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 ahead of the violent attack as the then-president tried to overturn his election defeat. Clark appeared for a deposition last month but refused to be interviewed, citing Trump’s legal efforts to block the committee’s investigation.
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 now wants to 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 Clark 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 was still proceeding with the contempt vote “as this is just the first step of the contempt process.”
The recommendation of criminal contempt charges against Clark will now go to the full House for a vote, though that is expected to be delayed until after the Saturday deposition. If the House votes to hold Clark in contempt, the Justice Department will then decide whether to prosecute.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the panel's vice chairwoman, said the committee would consider accepting Clark's assertion of his Fifth Amendment rights if Clark says he believes that answering questions about his interactions with Trump and others could incriminate him.
“It is important to note, however, that Mr. Clark is not excused from testifying simply because President Trump is trying to hide behind inapplicable claims of executive privilege,” Cheney said.
Trump, who told his supporters to “fight like hell” the morning of Jan. 6, has sued to block the committee’s work and has attempted to assert executive privilege over documents and interviews, arguing that his private conversations and actions at the time should be shielded from public view. As the current officeholder, President Joe Biden has so far rejected Trump’s claims.
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 by 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 of discussions.
According to a report earlier this year by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which interviewed several of Clark’s colleagues, Trump’s pressure on the Justice Department 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.”
Lawmakers on the Jan. 6 panel have vowed to hold any witness who doesn’t comply in contempt as they investigate the worst attack on the Capitol in two centuries. On Wednesday, Thompson said Clark has left them with no other choice.
“He chose this path,” Thompson said. “He knew what consequences he might face if he did so. This committee and this House must insist on accountability in the face of that sort of defiance.”
The Justice Department has signaled it is willing to pursue the committee's contempt charges, indicting longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon earlier this month on two counts of criminal contempt.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said then that Bannon’s indictment reflects the department’s “steadfast commitment” to the rule of law after Bannon outright defied a subpoena from the committee and refused to cooperate.
Clark’s case could be more complicated since he did appear for his deposition and, unlike Bannon, was a Trump administration official on Jan. 6. But members of the committee argued that Clark had no basis to refuse questioning, especially since they intended to ask about some matters that didn’t involve direct interactions with Trump and wouldn’t fall under the former president’s claims of executive privilege.
The committee had also considered a seeking contempt against a third witness, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, but held off this week after Meadows agreed to cooperate with the panel on a limited basis. The former Republican congressman from North Carolina has now provided some documents to the panel 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.
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.”
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.
Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press