Key House committees vote to advance contempt proceedings against Garland over Biden audio files

A pair of Republican-led House committees voted on Thursday to advance contempt proceedings against Attorney General Merrick Garland for his refusal to turn over audio recordings of President Joe Biden’s interview with special counsel Robert Hur.

The move is a major escalation in a dispute over the recordings between House Republicans and the executive branch that came after Biden asserted executive privilege over the files.

The House Judiciary and Oversight panels both approved a report recommending a contempt of Congress resolution against Garland for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena, paving the way for the full House to vote on holding the attorney general in contempt, though it is not clear when that vote could take place.

The vote passed along party lines in both committees.

Republicans have seized on Hur’s description of Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” in his final report, a characterization that Biden has disputed. Republicans say that access to the tapes would provide valuable information beyond what a written transcript can provide, but the Department of Justice has raised questions over whether the House GOP is seeking the audio files solely for political purposes and maintains they have distinct privacy concerns to protect.

The special counsel report quickly became a political problem for the president, spotlighting an issue that has proven to be intractable for Biden: his age. The White House and Biden’s campaign reacted furiously to Hur’s characterization of the president, launching a fierce defense aimed at beating back the special counsel’s allegations that Biden was forgetful — particularly on the matter of whether the president recalled the year in which his son died.

Republican lawmakers had previously subpoenaed the audio recordings of Biden’s interviews, along with his ghostwriter, Mark Zwonitzer, and other items from Hur’s investigation into Biden’s handling of classified information.

The transcript of the two-day interview between Hur’s team and Biden was released in March ahead of Hur’s testimony before the House Judiciary committee. Hur did not recommend charges against Biden in his report.

Through their subpoenas to the DOJ, House Republicans have argued that the audio recordings are crucial to their impeachment inquiry into Biden, which remains stalled as the prospects of the investigation ending in impeachment are increasingly unlikely. Without the votes in their narrow majority or evidence of an impeachable offense, Republicans are now struggling with how to end their probe and are looking for ways to target other members of the Biden administration.

The White House pointed out that the Department of Justice has already provided the transcripts of the special counsel’s interviews with Biden and his ghostwriter, and has complied with the other aspects of the initial subpoena from Republicans.

“Because of the President’s longstanding commitment to protecting the integrity, effectiveness, and independence of the Department of Justice and its law enforcement investigations, he has decided to assert executive privilege over the recordings,” White House Counsel Edward Siskel wrote to House Oversight Chair James Comer and House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan.

Siskel accused Republicans of wanting to distort the audio recordings and criticized them for going after prosecutors they do not agree with.

“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.

In light of the White House asserting executive privilege, the Department of Justice called on House Republicans to cancel their scheduled contempt proceedings.

“With the information you now have, the Committees ought not proceed with contempt and should instead avoid unnecessary and unwarranted conflict,” Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Carlos Uriarte wrote.

Uriarte also defended the need to protect the audio tapes: “We have repeatedly made clear that disclosure of the subpoenaed audio recordings would damage future law enforcement efforts and that the Committees’ continued demands raise serious separation of powers concerns.”

In April, CNN sued for access to the recordings of Biden’s interview.

Garland denounced Republican-led attacks on the Justice Department in remarks following the announcement that Biden would assert executive privilege.

“The Justice Department is a fundamental institution of our democracy,” Garland told reporters at the Justice Department in Washington, DC. “People depend on us to ensure that our investigations and prosecutions are conducted according to the facts and the law and without political influence.”

The White House asserted executive privilege at the request of Garland, who wrote to the president on Wednesday.

In their contempt reports, Republicans stated that the DOJ does not get to determine what information is useful to their investigation, and argued that the verbal nuances of an audio recording provide unique insight into a subject that are not reflected in a transcript.

“The Constitution does not permit the executive branch to dictate to Congress how to proceed with an impeachment inquiry or to conduct its oversight,” the report reads.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue in their report that while the transcripts of the interviews reflect what was said, “they do not reflect important verbal context, such as tone or tenor, or nonverbal context, such as pauses or pace of delivery.”

Such pauses and inflections, Republicans claim, “can provide indications of a witness’s ability to recall events, or whether the individual is intentionally giving evasive or nonresponsive testimony to investigators.”

Republicans pointed to a recent example of when a transcript and audio recording of the president diverged, stating that at a speech last month, Biden read a teleprompter cue out loud during his speech, which was reflected in the recording of the event but not in the initial transcript of his remarks.

The House Oversight Committee pushed back the start time of its Thursday markup so that Republican committee members could attend the criminal trial of former President Donald Trump in New York City, two sources familiar with the planning told CNN.

When asked to comment on the reason for the schedule change, an Oversight Committee spokeswoman told CNN, “Due to member schedule conflicts, the markup is now starting at a different time to accommodate members’ schedules.”

Once the Oversight Committee markup proceedings began, it didn’t take long to devolve into chaos as GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York briefly locked into a heated back and forth.

The markup went into the late hours of the night before the panel voted to advance contempt proceedings against Garland.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

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