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House rebukes Garland for withholding Biden audio

Republicans have questions about the president’s mental state and how he avoided prosecution

Attorney General Merrick Garland is sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, June 4. Getty Images/Photo by Chip Somodevilla

House rebukes Garland for withholding Biden audio

The House of Representatives voted 216-207 on Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress after he refused to turn over recordings of a special counsel’s interview of President Joe Biden.

“The attorney general is not exempt from congressional oversight,” Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., said in a statement after the vote. “The White House has a long history of editing Biden’s transcripts to cover up his embarrassing moments on stage. … We need the source material, and if the [Justice Department] refuses to comply with the subpoena, they are in contempt of Congress.”

The House Judiciary and the Oversight and Accountability committees subpoenaed the recordings in February. The Justice Department released transcripts of the interviews to the committees in March, but Republican lawmakers are fighting for access to the raw audio.

In a June 4 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Garland argued that providing the raw audio could cripple future investigations if witnesses feared that their interview would be made available to Congress and the public.

“I view contempt as a serious matter,” Garland told the committee. “But I will not jeopardize the ability of our prosecutors and agents to do their jobs effectively in future investigations. I will not be intimidated, and the Justice Department will not be intimidated.”

Hur interviewed Biden as a part of his investigation into the president’s handling of classified documents. In his final report, Hur wrote that Biden, 81, struggled to remember significant dates, including the specific timeframe of his vice presidency and the death of his adult son Beau Biden. Hur reasoned that a jury would likely acquit the president, in part because it would be difficult to prove that he acted knowingly and willfully. Hur added that Biden “would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” The Justice Department declined to press charges, but House Republicans said the public deserves to know more.

In May, Biden took Garland’s advice and invoked executive privilege over the recordings. The Justice Department maintains that Congress has not demonstrated a strong enough need for the audio to overrule executive privilege.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said at a May 16 hearing that the committee needs the audio “to determine whether special counsel Hur appropriately carried out justice by not prosecuting, not recommending for prosecution the president. … The transcripts alone are not sufficient evidence of the state of the president’s memory.”

Throughout the presidential campaign, the White House has struggled to counter the image of Biden as elderly and infirm. A Wall Street Journal article published Tuesday reported that Biden “shows signs of slipping.” Based on anonymous interviews with people in the White House, the report described several scenes in which Biden was confused or heavily reliant on his notes and the staff around him. It referenced two scenarios in February when Biden said he spoke with foreign leaders at a summit that occurred after their deaths. The article says the White House closely monitored the reporting for the story.

“President Biden is asserting executive privilege for the same reason we need the audio recordings. They offer a unique perspective,” Jordan said in the May hearing.

A litigation wing of The Heritage Foundation, The Oversight Project, aims to force the issue in court. In March, it sued the Department of Justice for access to the recordings. Executive Director Mike Howell said in a press call last week that the DOJ refusal to release the audio implies the recordings differ from the transcripts already released.

The White House has raised concerns that Republicans only want the audio for opposition research. White House counsel also said that the transcripts plus Hur’s testimony before Congress in May should satisfy the committees’ requirements.

“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,” White House counsel Edward Siskel wrote.

On the press call, Heritage’s Howell countered that recordings of Biden’s voice already exist.

“If there’s truly interest in a fake version of the audio not being out there, then the most responsible thing the DOJ could do would be to release an authentic copy,” Howell said.

House Oversight Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., said in a statement that the White House is unwilling to present the audio “because it will again reaffirm to the American people that President Biden’s mental state is in decline.”

He argued in a Rules Committee hearing on Tuesday that Biden gave up his right to executive privilege over the audio when he released the transcript of his interview conducted by Hur.

The Justice Department, which the attorney general leads, is responsible for prosecuting individuals held in contempt of Congress. It is not likely to take legal action against its own top official.

Catherine Gripp

Catherine Gripp is a graduate of World Journalism Institute.

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