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What does it mean to be in contempt of Congress?

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, is flanked by Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., left, and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., as they vote on pursuing contempt charges against former President Donald Trump's White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for not complying with a subpoena, at the Capitol in Washington. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

What’s the worst that can happen if you snub your nose at Congress’s demands?

The legal term for it is contempt of Congress, and the result could be a misdemeanor conviction with a sentence of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted, according to Jeremy R. Paul, a professor of law and former dean of Northeastern’s School of Law.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Tuesday to hold Mark Meadows, who served as chief of staff to former President Donald. J. Trump, in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions and turn over documents regarding the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Two of former President Donald J. Trump’s advisors have been held in contempt of Congress for failing to answer questions about the Jan. 6 Capitol siege. Northeastern Professor of Law Jeremy Paul explains the potential legal process ahead for both men.

“This is a federal statute that makes it a crime to refuse to cooperate with a legitimate Congressional investigation,” says Paul.

That investigation began in August when a select committee of 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives began looking into whether Trump is responsible for the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. The siege occurred after a rally where Trump claimed President Joseph Biden’s election was stolen and therefore not valid. Trump urged supporters to march to the U.S. Capitol and “fight like hell.” A​ crowd of more than 700 people overwhelmed Capitol police barricades and stormed the building, leaving five people dead and 138 police officers injured.

So why can Congress ask the Department of Justice to lock up a witness who refuses to comply with their demands? The answer has to do with the job of Congress, which is to make laws. Members of Congress often want to review all available  information as they write new legislation, which they will likely do following the Capitol insurrection, says Paul.

“It’s very deep and important to try to investigate this to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. We don’t like the idea of people storming into Congress and threatening members of Congress,” he says.

Congress has voted to hold Steve Bannon, a former Trump advisor who was never a member of the administration, and Meadows in contempt of Congress as a result of their investigation. Once House members vote to hold someone in contempt, the issue goes to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

“That’s what makes this case interesting. If this had happened in 2017 as opposed to 2020, the case would have been referred to Trump’s administration and they’d be very unlikely to move forward with contempt proceedings against their own officials,” says Paul.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has to decide whether to prosecute Meadows. He has already indicted Bannon, who—unless he makes a plea agreement—will face trial in a federal court in Washington, D.C. 

Both Bannon and Meadows have invoked executive privilege, which can allow the President of the United States and members of his executive branch to refuse to comply with subpoenas to maintain confidential communications.

“Bannon’s big problem is it’s very difficult to claim executive privilege when you yourself are not part of the executive branch in the relevant period of time,” says Paul. Bannon served as Trump’s chief strategist for seven months at the beginning of Trump’s administration.

Meadows, who was chief of staff during the Capitol siege, might have a better argument. However, Meadows complied with Congressional requests by sending some of the documents they asked for.

“The argument could be that by handing over some of these documents, he waived the privilege, and at least he should have to come before Congress to testify and respond to questions about the material that he already turned over,” says Paul.

And Meadows might face another issue, which is the question of who gets to assert executive privilege. If Trump can no longer assert privilege because he’s not the president anymore, that might undermine Meadows’ argument, Paul says.

Regardless of whether the contempt charges are upheld, Paul says the ongoing

investigation continues to reflect a severely polarized political climate.

“The level of political polarization in the country is undoubtedly the worst that it’s been since the Civil War, and one of the things that we’ve seen is that in the middle of the vote, only two Republicans voted to hold Meadows in contempt,” says Paul. U.S. Representatives Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, and Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, supported the contempt charges. 

“What that indicates is that all the other Republicans are more wedded to their party and their role as Republicans than they are wedded to their role as members of the House and their commitment to patriotism.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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