“Pointing the finger at his boss”: Experts say Meadows’ surprise testimony may blow back on Trump

Mark Meadows' appearance on the witness stand gave prosecutors "a lot to work with," law professor says

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published August 30, 2023 11:04AM (EDT)

Mark Meadows (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mark Meadows (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows this week unexpectedly testified at an evidentiary hearing in Atlanta, Georgia as he seeks to move his charges in Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' probe to federal court. Legal experts say it was a "high-risk gamble" as he faced cross examination after testifying that his actions following the 2020 election were part of official White House duties.

The former White House chief of staff's testimony comes not only as a surprise — given that he has successfully warded off prosecution up until now — but also because his doing so is "essentially pointing the finger at his boss," as Daily Beast reporter Jose Pagliery noted.

Meadows' defense, as Pagliery observes, is founded upon the notion that he was merely performing his professional obligations at the behest of Trump, a defense which is "precisely that point which Fulton County DA Fani Willis is trying to prove: that Trump was at the center of this entire criminal conspiracy."

"He now cannot ever say, 'I wasn't doing this for the president, I was acting on my own,'" Peter Odom, a former prosecutor at the Fulton County DA's office, told the outlet. Meadows' testimony can be understood as "flipping without actually flipping" — he has not formally agreed to cooperate with Willis' team of prosecutors, but his testimony alone has linked his actions inextricably to the ex-president, Odom explained.

"There's an ancient legal doctrine: Respondeat superior. It's Latin for 'Let the master answer,' which means that a boss is ultimately responsible if he "directs the agent to do something," University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Ronald Carlson told the Daily Beast.

Carlson also acknowledged, however, that Meadows' appearance in Atlanta was a "largely exculpatory" one: he did not confer any information proving that Trump and his allies were behind the attempts to flip Georgia's election results. 

"I didn't see a smoking gun admission by Meadows on the main point—whether they were extending re-election campaigning… he did not say these were political moves," Carlson said.

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And yet, as Emory University law professor Jonathan Nash pointed out, Meadows is also "giving fodder to the prosecution. Trump can still say, I didn't tell him to do that… but the prosecution has a lot to work with."

Top defense attorney David Oscar Markus drew parallels between Meadows' decision to testify and a budding trend amongst clients with similar demographics. 

"We are seeing more and more white collar defendants testifying in their own defense. And this makes sense—these defendants have no priors and very little baggage to speak of," Markus said. "At the end of the day, a criminal defense lawyer and his client have to make a risk-reward analysis," he continued. "In this case, Meadows and his lawyers really want to remove the case—they filed lightning-fast and are pushing hard for it. So they decided that the risks of testifying were outweighed by the reward of winning the removal hearing. And that's the kind of thing that prosecutors, who have never represented an actual person, have a tough time understanding because they view the world through a prism of guilt instead of with open eyes."

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Still, the extent to which Meadows' testimony will negatively impact himself, Trump, and the 17 other co-conspirators listed in Willis' indictment is still yet to be seen, though many experts feel Meadows' prospects at legal lenience are grim.

"If he's going to change his story, that's much more complicated now. He's said things under oath. Even if he said something that seems innocuous, the prosecution can use it at trial," Nash said.

"I prosecuted people down there," said Odom. "The people of Georgia… felt very offended by the president's attempt to use Georgia as a tool—and they're proud of their governor for standing up to him. They re-elected him."

"Those Fulton County juries tend to be very kind to many defendants," he added. "But I don't think they'd be kind to Mark Meadows."

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brief Donald Trump Fani Willis Mark Meadows Politics