By Melanie Zanona, Kristen Holmes, Jeremy Herb and Katelyn Polantz, CNN
Washington (CNN) — In January, as Kevin McCarthy fought to win the House speakership through 15 rounds of grinding votes and late-night sessions at the Capitol, a few blocks away a group of right-wing holdouts huddled with a familiar but surprising source – former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
A founding member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, Meadows spent years in the House agitating against GOP leadership, trying to move his party increasingly to the right. Now, Meadows was counseling a new batch of Republican rebels, advising them on specific demands to make and gaming out how McCarthy would react to their maneuvering, according to multiple GOP lawmakers who were part of the planning sessions.
The group was so taken by Meadows, at one point they considered nominating him for speaker. Meadows ultimately rejected the suggestion, telling lawmakers he preferred to operate behind the scenes.
“We talked to him about being speaker. We asked would he mind if we put his name up,” Rep. Ralph Norman, one of the McCarthy holdouts, confirmed to CNN. “That’s not something he thought he could win. His best use is doing what he does now. He can freelance and offer advice.”
Sources tell CNN that in recent weeks Meadows has also been advising right-wing lawmakers on negotiations over the nation’s debt ceiling, where McCarthy’s right-flank may try to stand in the way of any concessions made in a compromise with President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.
The former chief’s hands-on role in both the debt fight and the speaker’s battle – details of which have not been previously reported – underscores how Meadows has managed to stay politically relevant even as he covertly navigates potential criminal exposure for his role in Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
Meadows is viewed as a critical first-hand witness to the investigations of both special counsel Jack Smith and Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. He’s been ordered to testify before the grand jury in both investigations, and to provide documents to the special counsel after a judge rejected Trump’s claims of executive privilege.
The special counsel’s criminal investigation into January 6 and Trump’s mishandling of classified documents appear to be barreling toward a conclusion. There’s been a flurry of grand jury activity, as anticipation builds for any sign that Meadows is cooperating.
It is unclear whether Meadows has responded to the special counsel’s requests or appeared in front of that grand jury in Washington. In front of the grand jury in Georgia, Meadows declined to answer questions, one of the grand jurors revealed in February.
While Meadows has faded from the public spotlight, interviews with more than a dozen Republican lawmakers and aides, Trump allies and political activists in Meadows’ home state of North Carolina show how he has quietly worked to shape conservative policy and wield influence with MAGA-aligned lawmakers — even as his relationship with Trump remains fraught.
Meadows has maintained a lucrative perch in the conservative world as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, the pro-Trump think tank that pays him more than $500,000 and has seen its revenues soar to $45 million since Meadows joined in 2021, according to the group’s tax filings.
Rep. Jim Jordan, one of Meadows’ closest confidants when they served in Congress together, said he still considers Meadows one of his “best friends” and talks to him “at least” once a week. But when it comes to legal matters, Jordan said: “We make a point not to talk about that.”
A spokesman for Meadows declined to make him available for an interview and declined comment for this story.
‘No one really knows what he’s doing’
A source close to Trump’s legal team said Trump’s lawyers have had no contact with Meadows and his team and are in the dark on what Meadows is doing in the investigation, fueling speculation about whether Meadows is cooperating with the special counsel’s probe – or if Meadows himself is a target of the investigation.
The silence from Meadows has irked lawyers representing other defendants aligned with Trump who have been more open, according to several sources familiar with the Trump-aligned legal teams. In particular, they point to a $900,000 payment Trump’s Save America political action committee paid to the firm representing Meadows, McGuireWoods, at the end of last year.
“We’ve all heard the same rumors,” one Trump adviser told CNN. “No one really knows what he’s doing though.”
The Justice Department decided not to charge Meadows with a crime for refusing to testify before the House January 6 committee. In its final report last year, the January 6 House select committee said that Meadows appeared to be one of several participants in a criminal conspiracy as part of Trump’s attempt to delay and overturn the results of the 2020 election. The report paints Meadows as an integral part of that effort, as documented by the more than 2,000 text messages Meadows turned over to the committee before he stopped cooperating.
Meadows was also the key point of contact for dozens of people trying to get through to the president as the attack was unfolding, and the special counsel’s investigation has been trying to comb over many of those interactions.
A lawyer for Meadows declined to comment.
‘He still wants to talk about politics’
Despite silence on the legal front, Meadows remains in touch with members of Trump’s inner circle on political matters. He was actively involved in securing Trump’s endorsement in 2021 for now-US Sen. Ted Budd ahead of what was a contentious Republican primary in North Carolina. While less-and-less frequently since Trump left office, Meadows has been known to attend fundraisers and events at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, where he also helped organize a donor retreat for CPI last year.
“[Meadows] still checks in,” said the Trump adviser, who has spoken to the former chief of staff in recent months. The adviser stressed that Meadows had not indicated any desire to join the Trump campaign team. “He still wants to talk about the politics.”
Allies say Meadows – who fashioned himself as a savvy political operator during his time in Congress and the White House – is motivated by a desire to help steer the direction of the country. But some people who worked closely with him are more skeptical, and think Meadows is driven by a desire for power.
“He is all about getting information so he can be seen as important to donors, other members, the media,” said a senior GOP source close to Trump world, who used to work for a Freedom Caucus member. “People don’t trust him.”
One source close to Meadows suggested that he has not expressed interest in running for office again, but could be open to a job in a future Trump administration – an idea a source close to the former president scoffed at, hinting that Meadows’ direct relationship with the former president had run its course.
“I think he enjoys what he’s doing,” Jordan said of Meadows’ current gig. But the Ohio Republican added: “I’m sure he misses certain aspects of the job as well. You know how involved Mark was.”
‘Mark’s in the middle of all that’
After leaving the White House in 2021, Meadows joined CPI, a “MAGA”-centric advocacy group headquartered just blocks from the Capitol that has become a clubhouse for conservative lawmakers, staffers and activists.
Members of the Freedom Caucus hold their weekly meetings at CPI. During the speaker’s race, CPI was home to some consequential strategy sessions involving Meadows.
Sources who attended those meetings say Meadows pushed for concessions like the ability for a single lawmaker to force a vote on ousting the sitting speaker, which McCarthy ultimately agreed to after initially calling it a red line.
Meadows also encouraged them to push for a committee on the “weaponization” of the federal government, which Jordan now helms as chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Five months later, some of those same Republicans say they are once again turning to Meadows as they ramp up for a brawl over the debt limit. Meadows has been encouraging the far-right flank of the House caucus to stick together in insisting on spending cuts and other demands in exchange for lifting the nation’s borrowing limit.
“You’re talking about one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus,” Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, said of Meadows.
“He obviously wants it to continue to be successful. I think it has been. And so I think his role at CPI is to make sure that occurs,” Donalds said, adding that he had not personally spoken to Meadows about the debt limit debate.
When Meadows is in town, he will occasionally pop into Freedom Caucus meetings at CPI or huddle with members of the group beforehand. Norman said Meadows also recently helped him with a fundraiser in North Carolina. And Meadows is also known to dial up members frequently to talk shop.
“He called me today and he said that he wanted me to convey to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that he really appreciated her working with me and others on the stock bill,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump ally, said earlier this month of legislation to restrict lawmakers from trading stocks.
Aside from outreach to lawmakers, Meadows and CPI have also helped congressional offices find and train conservative staffers, particularly when it comes to conducting oversight, multiple sources familiar with the group’s work told CNN. That issue has been a top priority for the right now that Republicans are in the majority, and it’s also an area of expertise for Meadows, who was previously the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee.
“Mark’s in the middle of all that,” Jordan said.
A focus on fundraising
Meadows has helped usher in a groundswell of fundraising for CPI over the past two years and has been personally involved in a lot of the organizing fundraisers and courting donors, according to sources familiar with the matter.
According to the non-profit’s tax filings, CPI’s revenues jumped from $7 million in 2020 to more than $45 million in 2021, the year Meadows was brought in as a senior partner to help run the organization with former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who founded CPI in 2017. DeMint was previously ousted from the Heritage Foundation amid tensions with the board.
Among the donations to CPI: $1 million from Trump’s Save America PAC in 2021.
Sources familiar with CPI described Meadows as the working head of the advocacy group, which has spent millions of dollars purchasing several buildings just steps from the Capitol over the past two years. The goal, sources say, is to create a community for Trump-aligned “MAGA” conservatives.
“[CPI] wants Trump conservatives to have a home in Washington,” one source familiar with the organization said, adding that the buildings would be used for a variety of purposes, including for retreats and staff trainings. “Establishment Democrats and the Mitch McConnells have that and it keeps them here. [CPI] wants to keep [Trump Republicans] here.”
The buildings, purchased under limited liability corporations affiliated with CPI, are just down the street from the group’s current headquarters, blocks from the Capitol. Among the new real estate acquisitions, which were first reported by Grid News, are two storefronts on Pennsylvania Avenue surrounding a Heritage Foundation office, including the space of the old Capitol Lounge bar popular with congressional staffers of both parties.
There’s even a television studio at CPI so members can do cable TV interviews from the space – Jordan recently did an interview with Fox News from the studio, where he talked about Republican-led investigations into the Biden administration.
“There’s a real demand for what (CPI) provides to members. A lot of members like to go over there. I just wish I could get over there more,” said Donalds.
CPI did not respond to requests for comment.
‘A couple rungs below Jesus’
Yet even as Meadows maintains close connections in Washington through his perch at CPI, the same can’t be said when it comes to the congressional district he once represented.
In North Carolina’s 11th district, conservative political activists say the once-beloved local congressman has lost his luster and made enemies after he waded into both the primary to replace him and the contentious 2022 Republican Senate primary, where Budd defeated former North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker.
“I used to joke it was Jesus and then Mark Meadows in the 11th. He was just a couple rungs below Jesus in western North Carolina. He would arrive and it was like Elvis,” said one Republican activist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the political environment there. “Now I think he’s just kind of a non-factor if you were to talk to anyone in western North Carolina.”
Meadows has also decamped from his former congressional district to a home in South Carolina, where he splits his time along with his work in Washington, DC, according to sources.
After the 2020 election, Meadows got into hot water over his voter registration in North Carolina. The state investigated Meadows over registering to vote at a mobile home in Macon County where he had allegedly never lived or even visited, though the state’s Justice Department said in December there wasn’t sufficient evidence to pursue charges.
Meadows is now registered to vote in South Carolina, a county election official confirmed to CNN.
“He disconnected his 828 (area code) number,” the activist said. “Lots of us who had Mark Meadows on speed dial, that was just cut off, boom.”
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CNN’s Paula Reid contributed to this report.