Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) — Last week, one of the Republican congressman who has been spearheading the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden floated a new path forward for his embattled probe: issuing “criminal referrals,” recommending prosecution, to the Department of Justice.

“At the end of the day, what does accountability look like? It looks like criminal referrals. It looks like referring people to the Department of Justice,” House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, who is among those leading the impeachment inquiry, said in an interview on Fox News.

The notion of issuing criminal referrals as part of the probe has gained traction among senior Republicans on Capitol Hill as the prospects of impeaching President Biden have dulled, multiple sources told ABC News, with one congressional Republican bluntly describing the move as an “exit strategy.”

Any such referrals would fall short of the committee’s initial goals of impeaching President Biden, as the Justice Department is not obligated to act on such referrals or even acknowledge them.

But the plan could give former President Donald Trump a long-shot roadmap for his own administration to investigate his predecessor, should he win back the White House in November.

As Comer works to help navigate the future of the impeachment inquiry, sources tell ABC News that Trump and Comer had a meeting in Florida last month, though it was not immediately clear what was discussed.

The brief February meeting, which has not previously been reported, occurred at one of Trump’s properties in Florida, the sources said.

A spokesperson for Comer told ABC News, “While having lunch with Vernon Hill in Florida, Congressman Comer unexpectedly ran into President Trump and they had a brief 10-minute conversation.” The spokesperson did not comment on the substance of the conversation, or on who else may have been present.

A spokesperson for Trump declined to comment to ABC News.

In the interview on Fox News last week, Comer said he was “very prepared” to bring criminal referrals and directly referenced the possibility of the “next president” picking them up.

“If Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice won’t take any potential criminal referrals seriously, then maybe the next president, with a new Attorney General, will,” Comer said.

It is not immediately clear who might be referred for prosecution. When asked recently by Punchbowl if those referrals would include Biden himself, Comer said Monday, “We’ll see.”

The top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin, bashed the strategy, saying that Comer’s inquiry hadn’t uncovered any evidence to support such referrals.

“Criminal referrals generally relate to crimes, and we haven’t identified any except for the ones committed by their star witnesses,” Raskin told PunchBowl.

Raskin appeared to be referring to Alexander Smirnov, the former FBI source who was indicted last month by special counsel David Weiss on felony false statement and obstruction charges after he allegedly provided false information about President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Smirnov is the same person that Republicans have called “a highly credible FBI source” and have used to claim that Joe Biden is corrupt, according to multiple senior congressional sources, marking the latest setback for the inquiry.

Comer defended the probe in the wake of the charges, saying in a statement that, “to be clear, the impeachment inquiry is not reliant on the FBI’s FD-1023,” referring to the form that included Smirnov’s allegation.

Still, a growing number of House Republicans are beginning to acknowledge both publicly and privately that their yearlong investigation into Joe Biden and his family is unlikely to result in the president’s impeachment, sources said.

Even staunch conservatives such as Reps. Scott Perry, Troy Nehls and Patrick McHenry have acknowledged that Republicans lack the votes to back impeachment.

“I don’t think we are going to get to a point quite honestly where we are going to be able to impeach him, especially with the thin margin that we have,” Perry said recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Oversight Committee said, “The impeachment inquiry is ongoing and the outcome has not been pre-determined. The committees will issue a final report with recommendations at the conclusion of the inquiry.”

Other committees involved in the effort include the Judiciary Committee and the Ways and Means committee.

Multiple sources familiar with the sentiment on Capitol Hill told ABC News that the probe is essentially “falling apart” and is at a “standstill,” with only a slim majority supporting the effort. One source said that while many Republicans feel it successfully drummed up some allegations, the core claims at the heart of the probe remained confusing.

“It uncovered a lot of smoke, but there was never a message,” the source said. “The bar was set too high.”

Another source said the probe has been plagued by Republicans at times mischaracterizing and inflating the evidence they’ve gathered. Republicans have also squabbled behind closed doors regarding over which witnesses to call, sources said.

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