US refuses to charge Merrick Garland with contempt of Congress

Image source, Getty Images

  • Author, Max Matza
  • Role, BBC News

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has declined to file charges against Attorney General Merrick Garland for contempt of Congress after the House of Representatives narrowly voted to punish him for his refusal to turn over audio tapes of President Joe Biden.

The Republican-controlled House voted 216-207 on Wednesday to recommend that the DoJ, the department overseen by Mr. Garland, file criminal charges against America’s top law enforcement official.

The move stems from Mr. Garland’s refusal to turn over to Republicans interview tapes from a Justice Department investigation into Mr. Biden’s handling of classified documents.

In a letter sent Friday to Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, a senior Justice Department official said the department considers Mr. Garland’s actions “do not constitute a crime.”

Carlos Felipe Uriarte, deputy attorney general, said the department had a longstanding policy of not filing charges in cases where the president had made the decision to withhold requested documents using his power of executive privilege.

“Consistent with this long-standing position and uniform practice, the Department has determined that Attorney General Garland’s responses to subpoenas issued by the committees do not constitute a crime and, therefore, the Department will not present the subpoena for contempt of Congress before a grand jury or take any other action to prosecute the Attorney General,” Mr. Uriarte wrote.

Executive privilege is a legal doctrine that grants presidents the right to withhold information about the executive branch from the other two branches of government.

Last month, Mr. Biden invoked executive privilege to block congressional Republicans from accessing recordings of his interview with special counsel Robert Hur, who was investigating Mr. Biden’s retention of classified documents after he held the post of vice-president.

Mr. Biden returned the documents once they were discovered. The Justice Department special counsel who interviewed Mr. Biden said that even if he had preserved the records, Biden should not be charged.

The White House said Republicans had no legitimate need to access the five hours of audio, since a transcript had already been released. They argued that Republicans wanted to use the audio for attack ads against the incumbent Democrat as he seeks his second term as president.

The special prosecutor’s report said Mr. Hur believed prosecutors would have difficulty securing a conviction against Mr. Biden because jurors would likely view him as an “older, well-meaning man with a poor memory.”

Mr Biden, 81, is the oldest US president and his age and lucidity are seen by Republicans as a political weakness.

Former president and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is also accused of retaining documents intended to be given to government archivists after he left office.

Trump is charged in a separate case brought by another special counsel. He allegedly attempted to obstruct justice by hiding the classified notes after being ordered to turn them over.

In a statement responding to the DoJ’s decision, Mr. Johnson said he would continue to pursue the audio recording in federal court and called the decision “unfortunately predictable.”

Two other attorneys general have been tried for contempt of Congress in recent years. In both cases, Eric Holder and Bill Barr received similar letters from the DoJ stating that prosecutors declined to file charges.

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