In its first two public hearings over the last five days, the House committee investigating January 6 has looked to all the world like a well-oiled machine.
Committee chair Bennie Thompson and vice chair Liz Cheney read their statements from a teleprompter. Video clips are used regularly to highlight cogent points. The witnesses called before the committee are articulate.
In short: It’s clear that a huge amount of thought has gone into the presentations by the committee in these hearings. They know that they have the public’s attention for a very short period of time and are working to ensure they keep it long enough to tell their story.
All of which is what makes what happened Monday night all the more baffling.
Asked whether or not the committee planned to make any criminal referrals to the Justice Department, Thompson said it did not. “No, you know, we’re going to tell the facts,” said Thompson. “If the Department of Justice looks at it, and assume that there’s something that needs further review, I’m sure they’ll do it.”
Which is big news!
Except that it appears as though there is something far short of unanimity on that point among the committee members. “The January 6th Select Committee has not issued a conclusion regarding potential criminal referrals,” said Cheney in a statement released after Thompson’s comments. “We will announce a decision on that at an appropriate time.”
Several other committee members – including California Rep. Adam Schiff and Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria – also made comments that suggested that Thompson had gotten out ahead of where they were when it comes to criminal referrals.
While this is the first time that the airing of these disagreements has gone public, the split within the committee is not new. As The New York Times reported in early April:
“The leaders of the House committee investigating the Capitol attack have grown divided over whether to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department of former President Donald J. Trump, even though they have concluded that they have enough evidence to do so, people involved in the discussions said.”
At the heart of the split is the question of what the committee should be. Those, like Thompson, who oppose a criminal referral want to preserve as much of an apolitical mien for the committee as possible. Those in favor of a criminal referral believe that although it is a symbolic gesture – the referral would not force DOJ to indict Trump, for example – it is of vital import to follow the facts wherever they made lead, whether or not that process leads some to accuse the committee of acting in a political manner.
It’s a tough debate. But what’s remarkable is that the committee hasn’t come to a decision on the biggest issue it faces prior to its high-profile hearings set to play out over this month.
This is the sort of thing that should have been worked out in advance of the public hearings, at some time during its 10-month investigation. That whether or not to make a criminal referral quite clearly remains an unresolved issue is somewhat baffling given the stakes of these public hearings.
That the committee postponed its next scheduled hearing – originally set for Wednesday – doesn’t help matter either. It makes the committee look less than well prepared.
The impression left by the back and forth on Monday is that the committee is not all singing from the same song book. And that’s a bad look for a committee hoping to convince the public of the direness of what occurred on January 6.