The House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot has "intense interest" in the gap in former President Donald Trump's call log, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said Sunday as the panel weighs whether to issue a criminal referral against Trump to the Justice Department.
Raskin, a former Trump impeachment manager who sits on the committee, told CBS News on Sunday that the nearly eight-hour gap in Trump's White House phone logs on Jan. 6 covered the period when the Capitol was under siege. Trump made publicly reported calls during the time period and the committee has been able to piece together some of Trump's activities throughout the day but is still missing information.
"It's a very unusual thing for us to find, that suddenly everything goes dark for a 7-hour period in terms of tracking the movements and the conversations of the president," Raskin said.
"We are aware of other phone calls that took place during that time that included the president. But we have no comprehensive, fine-grained portrait of what was going on during that period," he added. "And that's, obviously, of intense interest to us."
Axios reported last week that Trump's executive assistant Molly Michael, who kept track of his unscheduled calls, was out most of Jan. 6 for personal reasons, though the White House struggled with spotty record-keeping throughout Trump's tenure.
Asked if the gap in the call log could be explained by simple incompetence, Raskin said that the panel was taking that into consideration but "it does seem like the gaps are suspiciously tailored to the heart of the events."
The Washington Post and CBS News first reported last week that the White House call logs turned over the Jan. 6 committee had a 7.5-hour gap between 11:17 am and 6:54 pm on Jan. 6, drawing comparisons to the infamous 18.5-minute gap in former President Richard Nixon's White House recordings during the Watergate scandal. The call log does not include publicly reported calls Trump had that day with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. The committee is investigating how Trump communicated that day, including whether Trump used disposable "burner phones." Trump denied that he even knew what burner phones were, though his former national security adviser John Bolton said he had used the term before.
A committee member told the Post and CBS News that the panel is investigating whether the gap is part of a "possible coverup."
The committee has no power to prosecute anyone and can only make referrals to the Justice Department. Members of the panel have been increasingly frustrated with Attorney General Merrick Garland and the DOJ's handling of its criminal referrals. Though the DOJ indicted former Trump strategist Steve Bannon for contempt of Congress after he refused to cooperate with the investigation, the department has not acted on the House's referral against former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows. The committee last week also voted to advance criminal referrals against former Trump aides Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino for stonewalling the probe.
The committee is also weighing whether to issue an unprecedented criminal referral against Trump himself, according to Politico. But Democrats on the committee say such a move would have "no substantive value."
"Our job is … to look at the facts and circumstances around what occurred. The judge's ruling certainly indicates that, in his opinion, the president had something to do with what occurred," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the panel, told Politico. "So we'll make a decision at some point as a committee."
But other members pointed to federal Judge David Carter's ruling last week finding that Trump "more likely than not" violated federal laws in his effort to overturn his election loss, calling his effort to block the certification of President Joe Biden's win on Jan. 6 a "coup in search of a legal theory."
"A referral doesn't mean anything," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the committee, told Politico. "It has no legal weight whatsoever, and I'm pretty sure the Department of Justice has read [last week's] opinion, so they don't need us to tell them that it exists."
Fellow member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., agreed that a formal criminal referral may be unnecessary.
"Whether we make a referral or not, I think that as the judge pointed out, there is credible evidence that the former President is engaged in criminal conduct," he said. "And I don't think that can be ignored by the Justice Department."
Raskin stressed that it is more "critical" that "all the information comes out" to the public.
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Some legal experts also worry that a criminal referral could face blowback.
"A formal criminal referral from Congress in this situation could backfire. The Justice Department's charging decisions should not be influenced by political pressure, and that's how this might look," Ronald Weich, a University of Baltimore law professor and former Obama-era DOJ official, told Politico. "A referral could make it harder for the Department to prosecute."
The White House has tried to stay out of the matter as well, according to the New York Times, even as Biden has privately told his inner circle that he believed Trump "was a threat to democracy and should be prosecuted." Though Biden has never expressed his frustrations directly to Garland, according to the report, he has privately said that he wants his attorney general to "act less like a ponderous judge and more like a prosecutor who is willing to take decisive action over the events of Jan. 6."
The Justice Department in recent months has expanded its criminal investigation beyond those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, issuing subpoenas seeking information on Trump allies who funded and organized the rally ahead of the riot and whether any other government officials were involved in the "planning or execution of any rally or any attempt to obstruct, influence, impede or delay" the certification of election results.
It's unclear whether the latest step will yield more high-profile prosecutions or even DOJ scrutiny of Trump himself but Judge Carter in his decision warned that it would be a mistake not to hold those responsible for the riot accountable.
If Trump's "plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution," Carter wrote. "If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself."