House GOP holds Garland in contempt of Congress, escalating Justice Department feud

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House Republicans voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress — dramatically escalating their fight with the Justice Department.

There was lingering skepticism just hours before the 216-207 vote about whether GOP leaders would be able to lock down the near unity required. Ultimately, nearly every Republican voted to take the largely symbolic step, which refers the attorney general to the DOJ for prosecution, with Democrats united in opposition.

Only Ohio Rep. David Joyce voted against it on the Republican side.

“As a former prosecutor, I cannot in good conscience support a resolution that would further politicize our judicial system to score political points. The American people expect Congress to work for them, solve policy problems, and prioritize good governance. Enough is enough,” Joyce said after the vote.

Garland is the first person to be held in contempt since Republicans took control of the House last year. The resolution cites his refusal to hand over audio of President Joe Biden’s interview with former special counsel Robert Hur, who was investigating Biden’s mishandling of classified documents. It’s unlikely Garland will face charges — a decision that’s expected to be up to U.S. attorney Matthew Graves — particularly after Biden asserted executive privilege over the audio.

“I think the case is so compelling. I think A, they’ve already waived the privilege, and B, we’re in an impeachment inquiry … and we’re entitled to the best evidence,” Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who issued one of the two subpoenas demanding the audio from Garland, said in a brief interview.

Garland and DOJ officials had pushed back against handing over the audio, warning that it could negatively impact cooperation in future investigations. They also argued, contrary to GOP claims, that by handing over the transcript they didn’t waive executive privilege for the audio.

“It is deeply disappointing that this House of Representatives has turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon. Today’s vote disregards the constitutional separation of powers, the Justice Department’s need to protect its investigations, and the substantial amount of information we have provided to the Committees,” Garland said in a statement after the vote.

In a recent court filing, DOJ officials also aired concerns that releasing it to the public would make it easier to manipulate the audio or create deep fakes — a fear raised by congressional Democrats who worried Republicans wanted the audio to splice it into campaign ads. That worry particularly centers around incidents in the interview when Biden reportedly had trouble remembering key details, prompting Hur to write in his report that a jury would see Biden as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” The White House has pushed back on that description, saying it was inaccurate and improper to include.

Additionally, Democrats argue Republicans’ focus on the audio is more about showing progress on their long-stalled impeachment inquiry into Biden, which has mainly focused on the business deals of his family members.

“Hearing the President’s words rather than reading them … certainly will not reveal any new evidence of an impeachable offense,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, wrote in a memo to members ahead of the vote.

That argument didn’t deter centrists from voting to hold Garland in contempt, though many have been skeptical of their party’s broader efforts to antagonize the Justice Department.

Some Republicans, including GOP investigators and members of leadership, have publicly questioned if the audio matches the transcript, which the Justice Department has already given to Congress and was released publicly. A DOJ official, in a court filing with outside groups seeking the audio, said that the audio matched the transcript aside from minor instances like the use of filler words or repeated phrases. The official noted that both Hur and FBI personnel present for the interview agreed with the assessment.

One centrist Republican, who was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations, said they had personally told the Justice Department recently that “we should hear the audio.”

That GOP member raised Hur’s description of Biden as having a faulty memory, saying that when a then-special counsel raises that issue then “there’s a problem. That’s just the facts of life.”

The move to hold Garland in contempt is the biggest blow Republicans have been able to land on the Justice Department as they push back on a slew of charges and convictions against former President Donald Trump. And it will likely be welcome news to the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, who plans to speak with congressional Republicans near the Capitol on Thursday.

There’s more coming on Garland, too. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) has warned that she will try to hold Garland in “inherent contempt” 10 days after Wednesday’s vote if the Justice Department “doesn’t do its job.” The rarely used tool would let the House sergeant at arms take Garland into custody for a congressional proceeding. Many centrist Republicans would almost certainly oppose that effort — and several lawmakers have acknowledged they don’t really know what it means.

Rather, the GOP’s fight over the audio is likely to end up playing out in court, where outside conservative groups and a coalition of news organizations have also sued for the recordings. That legal battle, which Republicans have hinted is coming, likely won’t conclude before the election.

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