The House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection voted Wednesday to pursue contempt charges against Jeffrey Clark, a former U.S. 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 as the then-U.S. 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 wants to instead 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 him 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 it is unclear if that will 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.
Claims of privilege rejected
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, U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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.
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.