This winter, after receiving a subpoena from a grand jury investigating former President Donald J. Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, Mark Meadows commenced a delicate dance with federal prosecutors.
He had no choice but to show up and, eventually, to testify. Yet Mr. Meadows — Mr. Trump’s final White House chief of staff — initially declined to answer certain questions, sticking to his former boss’s position that they were shielded by executive privilege.
But when prosecutors working for the special counsel, Jack Smith, challenged Mr. Trump’s executive privilege claims before a judge, Mr. Meadows pivoted. Even though he risked enraging Mr. Trump, he decided to trust Mr. Smith’s team, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Meadows quietly arranged to talk with them not only about the steps the former president took to stay in office, but also about his handling of classified documents after he left.
The episode illustrated the wary steps Mr. Meadows took to navigate legal and political peril as prosecutors in Washington and Georgia closed in on Mr. Trump, seeking to avoid being charged himself while also sidestepping the career risks of being seen as cooperating with what his Republican allies had cast as partisan persecution of the former president.
His high-wire legal act hit a new challenge this month. While Mr. Meadows’s strategy of targeted assistance to federal prosecutors and sphinxlike public silence largely kept him out of the 45-page election interference indictment that Mr. Smith filed against Mr. Trump in Washington, it did not help him avoid similar charges in Fulton County, Ga. Mr. Meadows was named last week as one of Mr. Trump’s co-conspirators in a sprawling racketeering indictment filed by the local district attorney in Georgia.
Interviews and a review of the cases show how Mr. Meadows’s tactics reflected to some degree his tendency to avoid conflict and leave different people believing that he agreed with them. They were also dictated by his unique position in Mr. Trump’s world and the legal jeopardy this presented.
Mr. Meadows was Mr. Trump’s top aide in his chaotic last months in the White House and a firsthand witness not only to the president’s sprawling efforts to overturn the 2020 election, but also to some early strands of what evolved into an inquiry into Mr. Trump’s mishandling of classified documents.
Mr. Meadows was there, at times, when Mr. Trump listened to entreaties from outside allies that he use the apparatus of the government to seize voting machines and re-run the election. And he was on the phone when Mr. Trump tried to pressure Georgia’s secretary of state to find him sufficient votes to win that state.
He was also there on Jan. 6, 2021, as Mr. Trump sat in a small room off the Oval Office, watching television as a mob of his supporters tried to thwart the peaceful transfer of power.
Mr. Meadows, who declined to comment for this article, has refused to discuss his involvement in any of the criminal cases. The full extent of what he shared with federal prosecutors remains closely held, as are the terms under which he spoke to them. But his approach to dealing with them could not have been more different from Mr. Trump’s.
Where the former president repeatedly ranted about witch hunts and the weaponization of the justice system, Mr. Meadows went quiet, staying off TV and refusing to call his former boss. Mr. Trump lashed out at the investigators on his tail, attacking them at every turn, but Mr. Meadows sought to build relationships when and where he could.
All of this has made Mr. Meadows a figure of intense speculation and anxiety in the former president’s inner circle. The feverish conjecturing among Mr. Trump’s allies was reignited this weekend, when ABC News revealed some of the first details of what Mr. Meadows told federal prosecutors.
ABC reported that Mr. Meadows — like other senior Trump officials, including Mike Pence, the former vice president — had undercut Mr. Trump’s claim that he had a “standing order” to automatically declassify any documents that were taken out of the Oval Office. Those included ones that ended up at his private clubs in Florida and New Jersey.
Mr. Meadows’s discussions with investigators did not surprise some on the Trump team. For months, Mr. Trump, his advisers and his allies had been deeply suspicious of Mr. Meadows. But having recently received discovery material from Mr. Smith’s team — evidence the prosecutors gathered during the inquiry — the Trump team now has visibility into what Mr. Meadows told investigators, according to people familiar with the matter.
“This witch hunt is nothing more than a desperate attempt to interfere in the 2024 election as President Trump dominates the polls and is the only person who will take back the White House,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Meadows’s lawyer, George Terwilliger, declined to comment on the facts laid out in the ABC story.
The plan by Mr. Meadows to be quietly cooperative with prosecutors without agreeing to a formal deal was hardly a novel strategy. It is what many subjects of investigations do when they are facing exposure to serious criminal charges. But in this case, the stakes are especially high for both Mr. Meadows and Mr. Trump.
Mr. Meadows’s goal was to give investigators the information they requested when he believed he was legally obliged to provide it. But he also used the law to push back when he considered the requests to be inappropriate or potentially dangerous to his own interests, the person familiar with his legal game plan said.
The strategy began playing out almost two years ago, when Mr. Meadows agreed to provide some documents to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack but fought its attempt to take his deposition.
In one instance, when Mr. Meadows was subpoenaed by the House committee for documents and testimony, he provided them with an explosive trove of text messages from the period leading up to Jan. 6. The messages showed Mr. Meadows communicating with everyone from Fox News hosts to Virginia Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas. They were embarrassing to both him and Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Terwilliger determined that since the messages were not related to Mr. Meadows’s communications with the president, they were not protected by executive privilege.
The texts were an invaluable resource to the committee staff and provided investigators with a road map to the players and actions taken as they were beginning their work. The decision to provide them to the House panel infuriated Mr. Trump’s team. But they also bought breathing space for Mr. Meadows.
Mr. Terwilliger took a different position on Mr. Meadows testifying to the committee. At first, he told the panel’s staff that they could not legally compel Mr. Meadows to do so and that even if they did manage to get him on the record, he would assert executive privilege over anything related to his dealings with Mr. Trump. The negotiations over the interview broke down when the committee subpoenaed Mr. Meadows’s phone records without first informing him.
There was, however, another reason Mr. Terwilliger was concerned about having Mr. Meadows tell his story to the House committee, according to the person familiar with Mr. Meadows’s legal plan.
Even in early 2022, the person said, Mr. Terwilliger suspected that Mr. Meadows would be called upon to tell the Justice Department what he knew about Jan. 6 and the weeks leading up to it. And he did not want Mr. Meadows to already be on the record in what he viewed as a politicized investigation. If Mr. Meadows was going to tell his story, the person said, Mr. Terwilliger wanted him to do so for the first time to investigators from the Justice Department.
It was then that the panel recommended Mr. Meadows be charged with contempt of Congress, a position that the full House ultimately agreed with. The Justice Department, however, citing the “individual facts and circumstances” of his case, declined to press charges.
While department officials never fully explained their reasons for not going after Mr. Meadows, the move was in contrast to the way they handled similar cases involving two other former Trump aides, Stephen K. Bannon and Peter Navarro. Both were charged by the department with contempt of Congress after they refused to deal with the committee altogether.
Mr. Meadows took a similar course when he was subpoenaed this winter by the federal grand jury in Washington investigating Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn the election. The former president had maintained that his aides should not testify to any matters covered by executive privilege.
When Mr. Meadows first appeared before the grand jury, he gave only limited testimony, declining to answer any questions he believed were protected by executive privilege, which shields some communications between the president and members of his administration.
But he was obliged to open up to prosecutors after they asked the chief judge in Washington at the time, Beryl A. Howell, to rule on the question of executive privilege in an effort to compel his full account.
By that point, the person familiar with the legal strategy said, Mr. Meadows — unlike Mr. Trump — had come to the conclusion that the top prosecutors in the special counsel’s office were engaged in a good-faith effort to collect and analyze the facts of the case. Trusting in the process, the person said, Mr. Meadows would seek to position himself as a neutral witness — one who was neither pro- nor anti-Trump.
“George believes witnesses are not owned by anybody,” said a second person who has worked closely with Mr. Terwilliger. “They’re not there for a person; they’re not there against any person; they’re not on one person’s side. They’re there to tell the truth.”
Typically, when people have such conversations with prosecutors, they receive limited immunity that prevents their own words from being used against them in a future prosecution. But investigators can use the information they provide to pursue charges against others.
Ultimately, Judge Howell issued an order forcing Mr. Meadows to go back to the grand jury. He answered questions for a second time, giving an unvarnished, privilege-free account.
The federal indictment against Mr. Trump contains a mix of accounts about Mr. Meadows’s behavior, some favorable to him. He is mentioned as enabling the false elector scheme to move forward by emailing campaign staff members to say, “We just need to have someone coordinating the electors for states.”
But federal prosecutors also noted in the indictment that Mr. Meadows, after observing Georgia’s signature verification process, told the former president that election officials were “conducting themselves in an exemplary fashion.” He also pushed for Mr. Trump to tell rioters to leave the Capitol on Jan. 6.
By contrast, Mr. Meadows fought efforts to compel him to testify in the separate case in Georgia examining Mr. Trump’s attempts to remain in office after his election loss. He also invoked his right to avoid self-incrimination when he eventually appeared before the grand jury.
The indictment that resulted from the Georgia investigation lays much blame at Mr. Meadows’s feet. It portrays him as acting as a willing accomplice in the effort to overturn the 2020 election, meeting with state-level officials, soliciting phone numbers for Mr. Trump and ordering up memos for strategies to keep him in power.
Prosecutors in Georgia also accused Mr. Meadows of a felony over his role in an infamous phone call on Jan. 2, 2021, in which Mr. Trump pushed the Georgia secretary of state to “find 11,780 votes.”
In a sign that he views the federal venue as more favorable terrain, Mr. Meadows has asked for the Georgia charges against him to move to federal court. In court papers filed last week, Mr. Terwilliger said he intended to challenge the case by arguing that Mr. Meadows was immune to prosecution on state charges for any actions he undertook as part of his federal job as White House chief of staff.
Mr. Meadows, who now lives in South Carolina, remains an influential back-room figure in conservative circles in Washington. He is a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, where he is paid about $560,000 annually, according to the organization’s most recent financial report.
In July 2021, a few weeks after the House voted to create the Jan. 6 committee, the political action committee aligned with Mr. Trump, Save America, donated $1 million to the institute.