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House votes to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt for withholding Biden audio

House holds Garland in contempt of Congress
House holds Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress 06:34

Washington — The House voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress, escalating a fight over audio recordings related to President Biden's handling of classified documents. 

Garland has defied subpoenas from the Republican-led House Judiciary and Oversight committees demanding that the Justice Department hand over the audiotapes of the president's interview with special counsel Robert Hur as part of their impeachment inquiry.

Mr. Biden asserted executive privilege over the recordings of Hur's interviews with the president and the ghostwriter of his book as the committees moved forward with contempt resolutions against Garland in May. 

The resolution passed by a vote of 216 to 207, with all but one Republican voting to back it. Rep. David Joyce of Ohio was the sole Republican to vote with Democrats. 

"It is deeply disappointing that this House of Representatives has turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon," Garland said in a statement. 

A vote on the House floor had been up in the air since the committees voted along party lines last month to recommend Garland be held in contempt. It was unclear up until the vote whether Republicans actually had enough support to pass the measure — they could only afford to lose two defections with their razor-thin majority if all members were present and voting. 

But House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, pushed ahead despite the uncertainty. 

"This decision was not made lightly but is essential to ensure transparency and accountability within the Special Counsel's office," Johnson said in a statement after the vote. "It is up to Congress — not the Executive Branch — to determine what materials it needs to conduct its own investigations, and there are consequences for refusing to comply with lawful Congressional subpoenas." 

The resolution directs the House speaker to refer the case to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for potential criminal prosecution. The Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute Garland, who leads the department. Last month, Justice Department officials wrote a legal memo, which was obtained by CBS News, that argued against prosecution. 

"No U.S. Attorney has pursued criminal contempt charges against an Executive Branch official asserting the President's claim of executive privilege," the memo said. 

From left, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, Rep. Jim Jordan and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.
From left, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, Rep. Jim Jordan and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

A House Judiciary Committee report argued the audio recordings of the interviews are of "superior evidentiary value" because the transcripts the Justice Department provided Congress "do not reflect important verbal context, such as tone or tenor, or nonverbal context, such as pauses or pace of delivery." It also asserts the transcripts are "insufficient to arbitrate this dispute as to President Biden's mental state." 

Hur, who was appointed by Garland, released a 345-page report in February that outlined Mr. Biden's handling of classified documents that he kept after serving as vice president. Hur declined to seek criminal charges, saying the evidence did not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Biden violated the law. The special counsel made a number of observations about the president's memory that enraged the White House and provided political leverage to Republicans. 

"We know we're entitled to all the evidence and the best evidence, and the transcripts alone are not sufficient evidence of the state of the president's memory," Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday. 

Republicans say executive privilege was waived when the Justice Department turned over the transcripts, and also claim the transcripts have been altered. 

The Justice Department has argued disclosure of the recordings could have a chilling effect on witness cooperation in future high-profile investigations. 

"I view contempt as a serious matter," Garland said at a Judiciary Committee hearing on June 4. "But I will not jeopardize the ability of our prosecutors and agents to do their jobs effectively in future investigations."

Democrats have called the effort a political stunt and say the Justice Department has cooperated substantially with GOP requests in its impeachment investigation, which stalled earlier this year after testimony from the president's son, Hunter Biden, failed to deliver a smoking gun. 

Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said Wednesday the vote was the GOP's attempt "to distract from the spectacular flop that is their impeachment drive." Raskin asserted Republicans want access to the audio recordings of Mr. Biden's interview "so they can make some political TV attack ads."

Cabinet officials being held in contempt of Congress is not without precedent. In 2019, the Democratic-controlled House voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for defying congressional subpoenas related to a dispute over the 2020 census. The Republican-led House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in 2012 over his failure to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious scandal

Ellis Kim, Jaala Brown and Andres Triay contributed reporting. 

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