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House GOP tees up vote on contempt of Congress for Garland

Dispute centers on audio recordings of special counsel interviews with President Joe Biden

From left, Reps. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., James  R. Comer, R-Ky., Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., testify Tuesday on a resolution recommending that the House find Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in contempt of Congress, during a House Rules Committee meeting.
From left, Reps. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., James R. Comer, R-Ky., Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., testify Tuesday on a resolution recommending that the House find Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in contempt of Congress, during a House Rules Committee meeting. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans cleared the way for a floor vote as early as Wednesday on whether to hold Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over audio recordings from a special counsel investigation of President Joe Biden.

The Justice Department gave lawmakers the transcript of former special counsel Robert K. Hur’s interview with the president. But the department refused to release the audio despite subpoenas from the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.

Last month, Biden invoked executive privilege over the recordings, which 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.

Republicans at the House Rules Committee — which approved a closed rule for the contempt legislation — said Tuesday that the case for contempt is straightforward. The congressional demands for the audio are valid, and Garland has declined to comply with them.

Conservatives have pointed to Hur’s findings after the special counsel report described Biden’s memory as “significantly limited” in his interview with the special counsel’s office.

Republicans argue the audio would give them a better picture of Biden’s comments and said transcripts do not capture tone and nonverbal context, such as pauses or his pace of delivery.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, the head of the Rules Committee, speculated there’s something the administration doesn’t want to provide to the American people. “There’s obviously so much energy being expended to prevent the public from hearing these and you have to ask yourself, why is there so much energy,” the Texas Republican said.

House Oversight Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., said that if Democrats “will not defend the institution of Congress, the institution they are a part of, how can we listen with a straight face when they talk about the sanctity of our other institutions?”

Democrats have castigated the contempt push and framed the effort as a partisan stunt, as well pointing out that when executive privilege has been invoked the proper venue to challenge that is in court.

If the House does vote to hold Garland in contempt of Congress, it’s unlikely that the Justice Department would take action against him.

The Justice Department has repeatedly found that contempt laws cannot be applied to an official for the executive branch “who is protecting the President’s claim of executive privilege,” according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the House oversight panel, said at the Rules Committee hearing that there is plainly no basis for holding Garland in contempt.

The attorney general and the Biden administration have consistently cooperated with lawmaker demands for information related to Hur’s probe, Raskin said. He said that Garland also released the special counsel’s report and provided the transcript of the Biden interview.

“Like their slapstick impeachment drives against President Biden and [Homeland Security] Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas, this new tragic comic contempt drive is doomed because it’s wrong on the facts, it’s wrong on the law and it’s wrong about who the real culprit is,” Raskin said.

The Maryland Democrat accused Republicans of wanting to search through the audio for a verbal mistake that they can turn into a political TV attack ad in the presidential campaign.

Rep. Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on the House Rules panel, said the contempt push was simply a distraction from the fact that presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has been found guilty on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

The Massachusetts Democrat said Republicans have falsely claimed that Garland is playing politics with the Justice Department.

“They are irresponsibly attacking the DOJ, making absurd claims that it is being weaponized. These contempt resolutions represent more of those attacks,” he said.

Republican arguments, he said, crumble when considering the Tuesday conviction of Hunter Biden, who was found guilty on three charges in a federal gun case brought by the Justice Department.

“How can any Republican in their right mind argue that the Biden administration is weaponizing the DOJ to hurt Republicans and to help Democrats. They just convicted the president’s own son,” he said.

McGovern also referenced the corruption case against Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who is currently on trial in federal court in New York, and a separate case against Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas.

The Justice Department has argued the release would chill cooperation with the department in future investigations.

Garland has defended himself amid the contempt push and argued that some lawmakers were pushing for contempt to get sensitive law enforcement information for no legitimate purpose.

Garland, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month, said “releasing the audio would chill cooperation with the department in future investigations.”

“I view contempt as a serious matter. But I will not jeopardize the ability of our prosecutors and agents to do their jobs effectively in future investigations,” he said at the hearing.

Garland, at the hearing, criticized the contempt effort by saying it was one in a long line of attacks against the department’s work. The push has come alongside threats to defund specific department investigations, he argued, and false claims that the jury verdict in the New York case against Trump was controlled by the federal Justice Department.

Garland touched on broader threat themes in an op-ed in The Washington Post, with the attorney general saying they’ve seen an escalation in attacks in recent weeks that go “far beyond public scrutiny, criticism, and legitimate and necessary oversight of our work.”

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