WASHINGTON - 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, even as the committee has 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 as the then-president tried to overturn his election defeat.
The chairman of the panel, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said the committee had received a last-minute notification from Clark's lawyer that he wants to instead invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Thompson said he believes Clark's attempt to return is a "a last-ditch attempt to delay the Select Committee’s proceedings" but it has agreed to try to interview him again.
"We will proceed tonight with considering the contempt report, as this is just the first step of the contempt process," Thompson said. "We want the facts, and we need witnesses to cooperate with their legal obligation and provide us with information about what led to the January 6th attack."
FILE - Acting Assistant US Attorney General Jeffrey Clark speaks next to Deputy US Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at a news conference.
Clark appeared for a deposition last month but refused to answer any questions, citing Trump’s legal efforts to block the committee’s investigation.
The vote came as Trump’s top White House aide at the time, chief of staff Mark Meadows, has agreed to cooperate with the panel on a limited basis after more than two months of negotiations. Meadows has provided some documents 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.
The recommendation of criminal contempt charges against Clark will now go to the full House for a vote, though it is unclear if that will be delayed as the committee has agreed to meet with Clark again. If the House votes to hold Clark in contempt, the Justice Department will then decide whether to prosecute.
In a transcript of Clark’s aborted Nov. 5 interview released by the panel on Tuesday evening, 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 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.
According to a report earlier this year by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which interviewed several of Clark’s colleagues, Trump’s pressure 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.