(CNN) — President Joe Biden on Friday said those who refuse subpoenas from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol should be prosecuted by the Justice Department.
Asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins what his message is to those who refuse subpoenas from the panel, Biden said, “I hope that the committee goes after them and holds them accountable.”
Pressed on whether he thinks those people should be prosecuted by the department, the President said, “I do, yes.”
The President’s comments, the strongest yet from Biden on possible repercussions for those who refuse to cooperate with the select committee’s requests, upended days of discipline from the White House, which has sought to distance itself from the House’s expected criminal contempt referral against Steve Bannon.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki had cited the department’s independence in making prosecutorial decisions when asked about it on Thursday, and last week she had declined to say whether the White House had discussed such enforcement with Attorney General Merrick Garland or anyone at the Department of Justice.
“That would be up to the Department of Justice, and it would be their purview to determine. They’re an independent agency,” she told reporters at a White House press briefing on Oct. 8. “They’re independent. They would — they would determine any decision on criminal prosecutions. I’d point you to them and, of course, the committee.”
And Justice officials have avoided revealing what they will do with the referral, which hasn’t been used to prosecute anyone in decades.
Department spokesman Anthony Coley said Friday that “the Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop.”
The select committee announced on Thursday that it was moving forward to hold Bannon, an ally of former President Donald Trump, in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena.
“Mr. Bannon has declined to cooperate with the Select Committee and is instead hiding behind the former President’s insufficient, blanket, and vague statements regarding privileges he has purported to invoke,” Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who chairs the committee, said in a statement on Thursday.
Bannon was scheduled for a deposition in front of the committee on Thursday, but his lawyer wrote in a letter to the panel the day before that his client will not provide testimony or documents until the committee reaches an agreement with Trump over executive privilege or a court weighs in on the matter.
The next step for the committee to move forward with criminal contempt for Bannon is to hold a business meeting, which Thompson said would be on Tuesday. In that meeting, the committee will adopt a contempt report, which outlines the efforts it made to get the witness to comply with the subpoena and the failure by the witness to do so.
This report is then referred to the House for a vote. If the vote succeeds, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi certifies the report to the US attorney for the District of Columbia. Under law, this certification then requires the US attorney to “bring the matter before the grand jury for its action,” but the Justice Department will also make its own determination for prosecuting.
Any individual who is found liable for contempt of Congress is then guilty of a crime that may result in a fine and between one and 12 months’ imprisonment.
Holding Bannon in criminal contempt through a prosecution, however, could take years, and historic criminal contempt cases have been derailed by appeals and acquittals.
Three other Trump allies also face subpoena deadlines this week. Two of them, Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and former administration official Kash Patel, have been “engaging” with the committee, according to the panel, though it remains unclear if that contact amounts to any form of cooperation. The select committee agreed to short postponements of Patel’s and Meadows’ appearances as they continue to engage with the investigation, a committee aide told CNN on Thursday.
Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a member of the January 6 select committee, told CNN on Friday that she was not concerned with Biden’s weighing in on the matter of subpoena enforcement and that she believes Bannon is “obliged” to testify before the committee.
“He needs to come in, he needs to testify, he needs to provide the documents that we’ve asked for. It’s his moral obligation, it’s his legal obligation, and we expect him to fulfill that,” the California Democrat told CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, who’s also a member of the committee, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Friday that he believes Biden wasn’t instructing the Department of Justice to prosecute Bannon but was just voicing his hopes for how the department would respond.
“The first thing he said was that the committee should aggressively enforce our right to get people’s testimony and to get the documents we’ve subpoenaed, and there’s no problem with that,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I also don’t have a problem with him as a citizen like me saying he hopes the Department of Justice will aggressively enforce the law so people don’t get away with committing crimes like this.”