House votes to hold Garland in contempt over Biden audio

House Republicans on Wednesday passed a measure recommending that Attorney General Merrick B. Garland be held in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena.

The GOP moved against Democratic opposition after the Justice Department refused to provide audio recordings of President Biden’s interview with the special prosecutor investigating his handling of classified documents. By a near party line vote of 216 to 207, the House called for Mr. Garland to be punished for his desire to compel the executive branch to produce the documents.

“We must defend the Constitution; We must defend the authority of Congress,” President Mike Johnson said before the vote. “We cannot allow the Department of Justice and an executive branch agency to withhold information from Congress.”

The move comes less than two weeks after the felony conviction of former President Donald J. Trump in New York on charges of falsifying business records to conceal a hush money payment to a porn star, and a moment when Republicans have stepped up their claims that the Justice Department under Mr. Biden has waged a vendetta against conservatives, particularly against their party’s leader.

In a statement, Garland said it was “deeply disappointing that this House of Representatives has turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon.”

He added: “I will always defend this department, its employees and its vital mission to defend our democracy. »

Only one Republican, Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, the leader of a majority Republican group on Capitol Hill, voted “no.” He said after the vote that as a former prosecutor, he could not support a measure that would “further politicize our justice system.”

Given the highly polarized nature of Congress in the modern era, contempt findings have become almost a rite of passage for attorneys general. Eric H. Holder Jr., a Democrat, was held in contempt in 2012; as did William P. Barr, a Republican, in 2019.

Neither case was prosecuted by the Justice Department.

What is now at issue are the audio recordings of Mr. Biden’s interview with Robert K. Hur, the special counsel who investigated his handling of classified documents. In a politically explosive report, Mr. Hur concluded that Mr. Biden should not face criminal charges, but he included a sentence that gave Republicans significant political ammunition, calling the president “ elderly, well-meaning man with a bad memory.”

The Justice Department has already released a transcript of Mr. Biden’s interview with Mr. Hur, but House Republicans say they need the recordings to continue their impeachment inquiry and examine the president’s mental health.

“It’s not a complicated issue,” said Rep. James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky and chairman of the Oversight Committee. “The Oversight and Judiciary Committees have issued duly authorized lawful subpoenas to Attorney General Garland for a certain set of documents, including the audio recordings of Special Counsel Hur’s interview with President Biden. The attorney general refused to produce these audio recordings.

Democrats argued that the contempt proceedings were intended to distract from Republican efforts to impeach Mr. Biden.

Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, argued that Mr. Garland had produced more than enough documents – more than 92,000 – for Republicans, and he claimed that the attorney general had in been too deferential to the demands of the Republican Party.

“Unable to find any wrongdoing on the part of the president, they are now turning to the attorney general,” Nadler said. “They accuse him of holding key evidence, but the attorney general has largely complied with every one of their requests. He has sometimes been too reactive, in my opinion, given the obvious bad faith of the MAGA majority.

But Mr. Comer noted that it wasn’t just the GOP whose members wanted the audio. The media took legal action to gain access to the recordings.

Mr. Garland resisted because attempting to release the audio could set a precedent that would endanger the confidentiality of other law enforcement investigations. Democrats also argued that Republicans have no legitimate legislative purpose in seeking audio, but simply want to use clips in campaign ads.

Mr. Biden last month asserted executive privilege to deny House Republicans access to the recordings. This decision was intended to protect Mr. Guirlande from prosecution.

The House contempt case now goes to the U.S. Attorney in Washington to determine whether to pursue the case. Under federal law, contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $100 to $100,000 and imprisonment of one month to one year.

Prosecutors are unlikely to bring criminal charges. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote in a letter that the agency has long held the view that criminal contempt of Congress charges do not constitutionally apply to government officials. executive who defy a subpoena once a president invokes executive privilege over the documents. In the question.

The Justice Department also invoked executive privilege in choosing not to file charges against Mr. Barr and Mr. Holder, two of Mr. Garland’s predecessors.

However, the Justice Department has at other times acted on cases of contempt of Congress.

Last Congress, the Justice Department prosecuted two of Mr. Trump’s four allies who faced contempt citations after refusing to cooperate with the House committee investigating the January attacks. September 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. They were Peter Navarro, who is currently serving a four-month prison sentence after his contempt conviction, and Stephen K. Bannon, who was ordered by a federal judge to report by July 1 to serve his four-month sentence. load.

Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who led the first impeachment inquiry against Mr. Trump argued Wednesday that Republicans had politicized the committee process beyond recognition and were now baselessly attacking an honorable man .

“Those who are putting forward this motion are inviting contempt, all right, but only against themselves,” Mr. Schiff said.

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