GOP advances Garland contempt charges after White House exerts executive privilege over Biden audio

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Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., speaks during the House Judiciary Committee markup hearing to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress, Thursday, May 16, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON – Two House committees moved ahead Thursday with contempt charges against Attorney General Merrick Garland for refusing to turn over audio from President Joe Biden’s interview with a special counsel, advancing the matter after the White House's decision to block the release of the recording earlier in the day.

In back-to-back hearings that nearly spilled into early Friday, the House Judiciary and Oversight and Accountability committees voted along party lines to advance an effort to hold Garland in contempt of Congress for not turning over the records. But the timing of any action by the full House, and the willingness of the U.S. attorney’s office to act on the referral, remained uncertain.

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“The department has a legal obligation to turn over the requested materials pursuant to the subpoena,” Rep. Jim Jordan, the GOP chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said during the hearing. “Attorney General Garland’s willful refusal to comply with our subpoena constitutes contempt of Congress.”

The rapid sequence of events Thursday further inflamed tensions between House Republicans and the Justice Department, setting the stage for another round of bitter fighting between the two branches of government that seemed nearly certain to spill over into court.

If House Republicans’ efforts against Garland are successful, he will become the third attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress. The White House slammed Republicans in a letter earlier Thursday, dismissing their efforts to obtain the audio as purely political.

“The absence of a legitimate need for the audio recordings lays bare your likely goal — to chop them up, distort them, and use them for partisan political purposes," White House counsel Ed Siskel wrote in a scathing letter to House Republicans ahead of scheduled votes by the two House committees to refer Garland to the Justice Department for the contempt charges.

“Demanding such sensitive and constitutionally-protected law enforcement materials from the Executive Branch because you want to manipulate them for potential political gain is inappropriate,” Siskel added.

Garland separately advised Biden in a letter made public Thursday that the audio falls within the scope of executive privilege, which protects a president’s ability to obtain candid counsel from his advisers without fear of immediate public disclosure and to protect confidential communications relating to official responsibilities.

The attorney general told reporters that the Justice Department has gone to extraordinary lengths to provide information to the committees about special counsel Robert Hur's investigation, including a transcript of Biden's interview with Hur. But, Garland said, releasing the audio could jeopardize future sensitive and high-profile investigations. Officials have suggested handing over the tape could make future witnesses concerned about cooperating with investigators.

“There have been a series of unprecedented and frankly unfounded attacks on the Justice Department,” Garland said. “This request, this effort to use contempt as a method of obtaining our sensitive law enforcement files is just most recent.”

The Justice Department warned Congress that a contempt effort would create “unnecessary and unwarranted conflict," with Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte saying, “It is the longstanding position of the executive branch held by administrations of both parties that an official who asserts the president's claim of executive privilege cannot be held in contempt of Congress."

Siskel’s letter to lawmakers comes after the uproar from Biden’s aides and allies over Hur’s comments about Biden’s age and mental acuity, and it highlights concerns in a difficult election year over how potentially embarrassing moments from the lengthy interview could be exacerbated by the release, or selective release, of the audio.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson slammed the White House’s move, accusing Biden of suppressing the tape because he's afraid to have voters hear it during an election year.

“The American people will not be able to hear why prosecutors felt the President of the United States was, in Special Counsel Robert Hur’s own words, an ‘elderly man with a poor memory,’ and thus shouldn’t be charged,” Johnson said the during a press conference on the House steps.

House Democrats defended Biden's rationale during the back-to-back hearings on Thursday, citing the massive trove of documents and witnesses who have been made available to Republicans as part of their more than yearlong probe into Biden and his family.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said on Thursday that Republicans want to make it seem like they’ve uncovered wrongdoing by the Justice Department.

“In reality, the Attorney General and DOJ have been fully responsive to this committee in every way that might be material to their long dead impeachment inquiry,” the New York lawmaker said. “Sometimes, they have been too responsive, in my opinion, given the obvious bad faith of the MAGA majority.”

The contempt effort is seen by Democrats as a last-ditch effort to keep Republicans' impeachment inquiry into Biden alive, despite a series of setbacks in recent months and flailing support for articles of impeachment within the GOP conference.

A transcript of the Hur interview showed Biden struggling to recall some dates and occasionally confusing some details — something longtime aides say he’s done for years in both public and private — but otherwise showing deep recall in other areas. Biden and his aides are particularly sensitive to questions about his age. At 81, he’s the oldest-ever president, and he's seeking another four-year term.

Hur, a former senior official in the Trump administration Justice Department, was appointed as a special counsel in January 2023 following the discovery of classified documents in multiple locations tied to Biden.

Hur’s report said many of the documents recovered at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, in parts of Biden’s Delaware home, and in his Senate papers at the University of Delaware were retained by “mistake.”

However, investigators did find evidence of willful retention and disclosure related to a subset of records found in Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, house, including in a garage, an office and a basement den.

The files pertain to a troop surge in Afghanistan during the Obama administration that Biden had vigorously opposed. Biden kept records that documented his position, including a classified letter to Obama during the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday. Some of that information was shared with a ghostwriter with whom he published memoirs in 2007 and 2017.


Associated Press reporters Zeke Miller and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.

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