Members of the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol are in wide agreement that former President Donald Trump committed a crime when he pushed a conspiracy to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. But they are split over what to do about it, including whether to make a criminal referral of Trump to the Justice Department, four sources connected to the panel tell CNN.
The internal debate, which has heated up in recent weeks, spilled into the open on Monday night when the committee’s chairman, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, repeatedly told a group of reporters at the Capitol that the committee would not be issuing any criminal referrals.
“No, that’s not our job,” Thompson said when pressed.
Thompson’s off-the-cuff remarks sparked an immediate response from several of his fellow committee members who rushed to knock down the notion they would not be pursuing criminal charges.
“The January 6th Select Committee has not issued a conclusion regarding potential criminal referrals. We will announce a decision on that at an appropriate time,” GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the vice chair of the committee, tweeted 15 minutes after Thompson’s comments.
Sources tell CNN Cheney is a leading voice among those members who believe the committee should issue a criminal referral.
Committee member Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat, took it one step further, tweeting Monday night that the committee has yet to vote on whether it will recommend criminal referrals but made clear she believes “if criminal activity occurred, it is our responsibility to report that activity to the DOJ.”
In a video released Tuesday, Cheney said that Trump likely violated two criminal statues in his efforts to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to count lawful electoral votes.
The episode Monday night illustrates that after nearly a year of work, the committee remains divided over what is likely the most pressing question it faces: whether to seek criminal charges against Trump based on the evidence it has uncovered.
The question has led to a vigorous, at times contentious, debate among committee members, sources say. The committee lacks prosecutorial powers and has faced persistent criticism from Republicans who argue it has no legal mandate.
Still, the idea of a criminal referral of Trump, even if entirely symbolic in nature, has hung like a shadow over the panel since it was first formed.
Divided over political risk
Members remain divided over the political risk that a formal criminal referral to the Justice Department could present. A criminal referral is not an official responsibility of the panel. And the DOJ would be under no legal obligation to act on the committee’s request, though it could force Attorney General Merrick Garland and his prosecutors into a difficult public position.