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White House move doesn’t deter House panels on Garland contempt

Biden invoked executive privilege to withhold special counsel audio recordings from Republicans

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, leads a markup Thursday on whether to recommend holding Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in contempt of Congress.
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, leads a markup Thursday on whether to recommend holding Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in contempt of Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A White House move to withhold audio recordings Thursday did not derail a push from House Republicans to recommend holding Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in contempt of Congress.

President Joe Biden invoked executive privilege over audio recordings of former special counsel Robert K. Hur’s interviews with the president and a ghostwriter who worked with Biden. The privilege generally has given a president the authority to withhold information to protect the executive branch’s ability to confer and make decisions outside of public view.

A transcript of the Biden interview has been released publicly, but the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Accountability Committee issued subpoenas in February to Garland to compel the production of the audio. Both committees held markups on the issue Thursday.

White House Counsel Ed Siskel, in a letter to lawmakers sent Thursday morning, said Biden was invoking executive privilege “because of the President’s longstanding commitment to protecting the integrity, effectiveness, and independence of the Department of Justice and its law enforcement investigations.”

The dispute in particular centers on audio of Biden’s time with the special counsel, after Hur’s report included a discussion of how the president’s memory was “significantly limited” during the interview. Republicans have used Hur’s conclusions about Biden’s mental acuity to criticize the president.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and a close ally to presumptive 2024 Republican nominee Donald Trump, said the last-minute invocation did not change the fact that Garland has not complied with the subpoena.

“Now today, this morning, we get an eleventh-hour invocation of executive privilege,” he said. “President Biden is asserting executive privilege for the same reason we need the audio recordings: They offer a unique perspective.”

The Judiciary Committee moved forward with a markup, in which Democrats and Republicans exchanged barbs about the mental acuity of the other party’s presidential nominee. The panel voted 18-15 along party lines to advance a report that recommends holding Garland in contempt of Congress.

The Oversight Committee late Thursday voted 24-20 to advance a similar report, with committee Democrats noting the markup, which was pushed back to 8 p.m., came after some panel Republicans spent the day in New York supporting former President Donald Trump at his ongoing trial.

“Our originally scheduled performance was supposed to be at 11:00 am today but it was postponed when members of the majority chose to join a mass spiritual pilgrimage to the New York criminal trial of a Florida man, an adjudicated fraudster and rapist, as he faces 34 felony counts of falsifying corporate financial records to cover up $130,000 paid in hush money to a porn star sex partner,” ranking member Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said in his opening statement.

Siskel, in the letter, cast doubt about the motivations of House Republicans.

“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,” Siskel wrote. “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.”

Jordan, at the hearing, said their motivation is the impartial administration of justice by the department.

A report from the House Judiciary Committee says the panel subpoenaed the materials for multiple reasons, including to find out if there’s “sufficient grounds exist to draft articles of impeachment against President Biden.”

The report argues that transcripts “do not reflect important verbal context, such as tone or tenor, or nonverbal context, such as pauses or pace of delivery.”

House Republicans have not moved to impeach Biden this Congress, and the contempt of Congress push is the latest in a broader effort from House Republicans to attack the Biden administration Justice Department.

Garland, according to a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call, asked the president to assert executive privilege over the recordings, saying that disclosure would damage future law enforcement efforts. He held a press conference Thursday to defend the department.

“We have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the committees get responses to their legitimate requests. But this is not one,” Garland said to reporters. “To the contrary, this is one that will harm our ability in the future to successfully pursue sensitive investigations.”

At the Judiciary Committee markup, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., rebuked Jordan for moving forward against Garland given Jordan’s past failure to comply with a subpoena from the now-disbanded House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“It is a height of hypocrisy for the chairman of this committee to try to enforce a contempt subpoena against Merrick Garland when this chairman himself ignored a bipartisan congressional subpoena,” Lieu said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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