The chair of the House committee investigating the Capitol riot said this week that the panel will not make any criminal referrals, even though its leaders have previously hinted at the possibility of doing so.
“Our job is to look at the facts and circumstances around Jan. 6—what caused it—and make recommendations after that,” Chair Bennie Thompson, (D-Miss.) told reporters Monday as he left the House chamber after the second day of public hearings by the panel.
When pressed on the matter and whether the committee had ruled out the possibility of referring criminal charges, particularly for former President Donald Trump, Thompson replied: “We don’t have authority.”
But the committee’s vice chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) suggested later on Monday that a decision was not yet final.
“The committee has not issued a conclusion regarding potential criminal referrals. We will announce a decision on that at an appropriate time,” she said in a statement on Twitter.
Rep. Elaine Luria ( D-Va.) tweeted in a separate statement, that the committee “has yet to vote,” on recommending criminal referrals.
“If criminal activity occurred, it is our responsibility to report that activity to the DOJ,” she said.
Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28), one of three California Democrats on the committee, also weighed in during a CNN interview Monday when asked about Thompson’s remarks, saying, “We haven’t had a discussion about that, so I don’t know that the committee has reached a position on whether we make a referral or what the referrals might be, I thought we were deferring that decision until we concluded our investigation.”
While Democrats have hoped the congressional hearings would lead to criminal prosecutions, making a criminal referral — instead of simply inspiring the Justice Department to act — comes with the risk of making the committee’s entire investigation appear political.
Thompson’s remarks on Monday contrast with earlier suggestions that criminal referrals might be on the table.
Earlier this year, Thompson told the press that the evidence gathered in 2021 pointed to Congress formally asking the Justice Department to use its work as the basis for prosecutions.
“The potential for criminal referrals is there,” he said.
More recently, in April, Cheney said the panel had sufficient evidence to refer Trump for criminal charges, but cautioned that the panel had not made a decision about moving forward with it.
“It’s absolutely clear that what President Trump was doing — what a number of people around him were doing — that they knew it was unlawful. They did it anyway,” Cheney said during a CNN interview at the time, when asked whether the committee had enough evidence for a criminal referral.