On Tuesday, Mark Meadows asked to move his indictment in Fulton County, Ga., to federal court. “Nothing Mr. Meadows is alleged in the indictment to have done is criminal per se: arranging Oval Office meetings, contacting state officials on the president’s behalf, visiting a state government building, and setting up a phone call for the president,” his lawyer wrote in court filings. “One would expect a chief of staff to the president of the United States to do these sorts of things.”
In his interview with the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Brad Raffensperger describes that visit to a state government building: Mr. Meadows’s bizarre appearance shortly before Christmas 2020, to a facility in Cobb County, Ga.,where investigative teams were looking at images of ballots, envelopes and signatures.
“I believe he thought that, you know, by him showing up that he was going to be allowed into that meeting room,” said Mr. Raffensperger, who remains Georgia’s secretary of state. At that point, Mr. Meadows had texted him twice about speaking on the phone.
Mr. Meadows was not permitted inside. “There was a glass window on the door, and he could look through,” Mr. Raffensperger said.
The image of Mr. Meadows somewhere surreal and incorrect, and only partially visible, is a fitting one. The man is everywhere and nowhere: Across hundreds of pages of indictments filed in recent months, his name only appears about a dozen times.
But he’s played an indirect role in some of our best understanding of what happened in the months leading up to Jan. 6. He complied, partially, with a select committee subpoena, handing over text messages that included everything from Ginni Thomas’s ecstatic, emotional messages about the election to the desperate ones from Fox News hosts and Donald Trump Jr. on the day of Jan. 6. Cassidy Hutchinson, the aide whose testimony broke down the frayed and chaotic final days of the Trump White House, served as Mr. Meadows’s aide. And in the audio where Mr. Trump jokes about classified documents and ruffles papers around, he’s reportedly talking to Mr. Meadows’s ghost writer.
His presence in the events leading up to Jan. 6, and absence from public life since, has made him into a visible ghost, whose actions and intentions can only be pieced together (sometimes inexplicably) by fragments of texts and the testimony of other people.
Many Americans probably heard about Mr. Meadows first during one of the wilder periods of the Trump White House: After Mr. Trump’s White House doctor spoke weirdly about the president’s Covid prognosis outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Mr. Meadows spoke as a “source familiar” to a group of reporters and said that Mr. Trump was “still not on a clear path to a full recovery” — while not realizing he was on camera. Then, later in the day, he contradicted his remark to say that Mr. Trump was “doing very well.”
Why did he do any of this? It’s still not totally clear. At the time, the writer Tim Alberta noted various theories: Was Mr. Trump actually in bad shape inside the hospital, and Mr. Meadows thought people should know? Was there some kind of advantage in people thinking Mr. Trump was in worse shape than he actually was? Was Mr. Meadows overwhelmed? Was he just compelled, in the way some people are, to just … agree with the premise of reporters’ questions?
Mr. Meadows looks and sounds like a conventional Republican (dressed in the affable manner of Southern fraternity alumni). But, at least in published stories about him, he seems to oscillate between conflict and reconciliation, and sometimes undertakes unexpected or unexplained maneuvers with opaque motivations.
A decade ago, according to Mr. Alberta, after his first attempt to help to unseat John Boehner as speaker of the House (Meadows served almost four terms in Congress), Mr. Meadows went to Mr. Boehner’s office to apologize. According to Mr. Boehner and his chief of staff, Mr. Meadows got on his knees, put his hands together, and asked, “Mr. Speaker, will you please forgive me?” Two years later, when he tried to unseat Mr. Boehner again, he seemingly told no one beforehand — including fellow members of the Freedom Caucus.
During his first congressional campaign, Mr. Meadows told a local reporter that social struggles as a teen had informed his perspective. “All you want to do is fit in,” Mr. Meadows said back then. “When you run for office, people say stuff. It, at times, can step on pains. We just want to like everyone and be liked.” And as Maggie Haberman of The Times wrote in her book, this “compulsion to tell different people what they wanted to hear” arguably helped pave the way for the events of Jan. 6.
What was Mr. Meadows thinking after the 2020 election? Threaded through books and select committee materials is a subtle sense that he often seemed on the same side of whoever was sharing their version of events.
“I think Mark was doing the best he could,” was how, in his appearance before the select committee, Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel, described Mr. Meadows’s efforts to end the violence on Jan. 6 . Gen. Mark Milley told the committee that it was probably Mr. Meadows who initiated the first of a series of calls between the two of them, along with Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, to coordinate responses to national security threats in the final days of the administration. “He wasn’t — you know he didn’t say anything to me about, hey, we’re going to stay in power,” Mr. Milley said.
“He just agreed with me,” the former Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson told the select committee about her efforts to get speakers like the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones removed from the Jan. 6 rally. She had texted Mr. Meadows on Jan. 2, 2021, and asked, “Would you mind giving me a call regarding this Jan. 6 event? Things have gotten crazy, and I desperately need some direction. Please.”
He called her almost immediately — on the same day Mr. Trump, with Mr. Meadows on the line, called Mr. Raffensperger and asked him to find votes. The circular nature of who was agreeing with whom is a little maddening: When Larry Kudlow, then the head of the National Council of Economic Advisers, learned about the Raffensperger call, he berated Mr. Meadows, according to Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s account. They report that Mr. Meadows told Mr. Kudlow: “I couldn’t stop the president. I tried, but I couldn’t stop him.”
This goes on endlessly: Mr. Meadows did transition calls with President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, and he texted Ms. Thomas about this being a fight between good and evil, as Ms. Haberman notes in her book. He texted jokes back and forth with a White House adviser about Rudy Giuliani’s claims of dead voters, and arranged a meeting between Mr. Giuliani and Senator Lindsey Graham about Mr. Giuliani’s claims, according to the journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Mr. Meadows pushed back against the Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and Michael T. Flynn, a former national security adviser, during a lengthy meeting at the White House, and passed along a conspiracy theory about an Italian company changing votes to the Justice Department, according to one former official’s committee testimony.
In the last month, two prosecutors have used the same events to charge the same person, Mr. Trump, with a crime. On their own, in isolation, each indictment would make for the biggest case in American history. Instead, these two prosecutions are happening simultaneously, like the biggest possible experiment in how two prosecutors (or judges or juries) can approach the same issue.
The underlying situation remains the same, but the scope, style and tenor of the indictments are different. The federal case is narrower; the Georgia case is sprawling. The federal indictment is a document meant to argue and justify its existence to the reader. The Georgia indictment requires the reader to follow along with 19 indictees chaotically weaving in and out of a narrative unfolding over years.
Mr. Meadows is so absent from the federal indictment that reporters and politicians have wondered why. He is charged in Georgia. There are always multiple ways of looking at things, and even now it’s not clear what Mr. Meadows is thinking and doing; it seems possible he always thought he was being helpful, whether he was talking to Mr. Trump, Mr. Milley, Ms. Thomas or Mr. Raffensperger.
But reading the Georgia indictment is to step away from the question of intentions: The document is arguably just a lengthy series of actions and outcomes, rather than much in the way of beliefs. And when it’s put like that about Mr. Meadows, you can see where a placating mechanism can become a force of its own, helping smooth the way for catastrophe.
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Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.