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U.S. House GOP votes to hold attorney general in contempt in dispute over audio recording

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U.S. House GOP votes to hold attorney general in contempt in dispute over audio recording

Jun 12, 2024 | 6:19 pm ET
By Ashley Murray
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U.S. House GOP votes to hold attorney general in contempt in dispute over audio recording
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U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department to announce the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the discovery of classified documents held by President Joe Biden at an office and his home on Jan. 12, 2023 in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress for his refusal to release audio recordings of President Joe Biden’s interviews with Department of Justice officials.

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The GOP lawmakers maintain the audio is valuable for their monthslong impeachment inquiry into Biden.

House Republicans brought the contempt citation against Garland after he agreed with Biden’s assertion of executive privilege over the recordings of his interviews during special counsel Robert Hur’s investigation into his handling of classified material. Hur ultimately did not recommend criminal charges against Biden.

The House voted 216-207 to pass the resolution. Rep. Dave Joyce of Ohio was the only Republican to vote no.

“Congress cannot serve as a necessary check on the presidency if the executive branch is free to defy duly authorized, legal subpoenas,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, said in a statement following the vote. “House Republicans rightfully held Attorney General Merrick Garland accountable today for his failure to comply with lawful subpoenas issued by the Oversight and Judiciary Committees.”

Garland released a statement denouncing the vote as “deeply disappointing” and accusing House Republicans of turning “a serious Congressional authority into a partisan weapon.”

“Today’s vote disregards the constitutional separation of powers, the Justice Department’s need to protect its investigations, and the substantial amount of information we have provided to the committees,” Garland said in the statement.

The Justice Department provided a transcript of Hur’s interviews with Biden to both committees.

But GOP committee leaders subpoenaed the audio because they maintain transcripts are “not sufficient.”

“We’re in the midst of an impeachment inquiry, we’re entitled to the best evidence, and that’s why we want the tapes,” Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said on the floor Wednesday morning during debate of the contempt resolution.

Jordan accused the White House of a “history of changing transcripts,” seeming to refer to a late April report by the right-wing publication the Daily Caller that highlighted transcript corrections issued by White House communications staff. The White House routinely publishes transcripts of speeches and comments by Biden.

“The audio recording is the best evidence of the words that President Biden actually spoke,” Jordan continued on the floor.

News organizations are also in pursuit of the audio. Several, including CNN and NBC, have sued for the recordings under the Freedom of Information Act.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, ranking member of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, criticized Republicans on the floor Wednesday for seeking to hold Garland in contempt over an ongoing impeachment inquiry that he described as a “madcap wild goose chase.”

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House GOP lawmakers already have access to a “verbatim” transcript, the Maryland Democrat said.

“Do they think that the holy grail of the 118th Congress – evidence of a presidential high crime and misdemeanor – is lurking in the pauses or the background throat clearings and sneezes on the audio tape?” Raskin continued. “… They literally don’t even know what they’re looking for anymore.”

House lawmakers voted along party lines in December to proceed with an impeachment inquiry into whether Biden, during his time as vice president, benefited from his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings.

Trump, Biden and classified documents

In response to Raskin’s accusation, Jordan said on the floor Wednesday that Republicans know what they’re after: “We’re looking for equal treatment under the law,” he said.

“The committees need the audio recordings to determine whether the Justice Department appropriately carried out justice by not prosecuting the president,” Jordan said.

“They told us ‘we’re going to operate independently of the White House’ … OK, maybe so, but what we do know is this: One former president is being charged. Joe Biden’s not being (charged),” Jordan continued on the floor.

Trump faces federal criminal charges in Florida related to his storage of classified materials at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach estate, after he lost the 2020 presidential election to Biden. The case has been postponed indefinitely by trial Judge Aileen Cannon.

In early February, Hur declined to bring criminal charges against Biden for his handling of the classified information. Hur described Biden in his report as a “sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory,” a comment Biden vehemently rebuked.

Hur interviewed Biden in October 2023 as part of his inquiry into classified documents dating back to Biden’s time as vice president. The documents were found at the president’s office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., and later at his private Wilmington home, respectively in November 2022 and January 2023.

Recent criminal contempt trend

Criminal contempt is a tool Congress can use as leverage to obtain compliance with subpoenas. The citation carries a penalty of a fine up to $100,000 or imprisonment of at least one month but no longer than 12 months if the Department of Justice pursues charges.

While the tool is historically rarely used in Congress, it’s becoming more common. Since 2019, the House has approved six such citations. So far, the Justice Department has declined to pursue charges against executive branch officials held in contempt. The statute of limitations is five years.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment on whether it would pursue charges against Garland, an unlikely scenario.

Garland is not the first U.S. attorney general to be held in contempt.

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The Democratic-led House held former President Donald Trump’s Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress in 2019 after he refused to turn over documents related to the 2020 Census and his order to a Department of Justice employee to ignore a deposition subpoena.

The Department of Justice did not pursue charges against Barr, who was held in contempt alongside then-Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served in the Obama administration, was held in contempt of Congress in June 2012 for refusing to provide documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, an investigation into gun trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Department of Justice declined to prosecute Holder. Holder was the first-ever sitting U.S. Cabinet member to be held in criminal contempt of Congress.

Congress also held Holder in civil contempt over the botched operation, leading to a yearslong lawsuit that ended in a settlement in 2019.