Skip to content

House Votes to Hold Garland in Contempt Over Biden Audio

House Republicans on Wednesday muscled through a measure recommending that Attorney General Merrick B. Garland be held in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena.

The G.O.P. acted over Democratic opposition after the Justice Department declined to provide audio recordings of President Biden’s interview with the special counsel investigating his handling of classified documents. By a nearly party-line vote of 216 to 207, the House called for punishing Mr. Garland in its drive to compel the executive branch to produce the materials.

“We have to defend the Constitution; we have to defend the authority of Congress,” Speaker Mike Johnson said before the vote. “We can’t allow the Department of Justice and an executive branch agency to hide information from Congress.”

The move came less than two weeks after former President Donald J. Trump’s felony conviction in New York on charges that he falsified business records to cover up a hush-money payment to a porn star, and at a time when Republicans have escalated their claims that the Justice Department under Mr. Biden has carried out a vendetta against conservatives, particularly their party’s leader.

In a statement, Mr. Garland said it was “deeply disappointing that this House of Representatives has turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon.”

He added, “I will always stand up for this department, its employees and its vital mission to defend our democracy.”

Just one Republican, Representative David Joyce of Ohio, the leader of a mainstream G.O.P. group on Capitol Hill, voted “no.” He said after the vote that as a former prosecutor he could not support a measure that would “further politicize our judicial system.”

Given the highly polarized nature of Congress in the modern era, contempt findings have become almost a rite of passage for attorneys general. Eric H. Holder Jr., a Democrat, was held in contempt in 2012; as was William P. Barr, a Republican, in 2019.

Neither case was prosecuted by the Justice Department.

At issue now are audio recordings of Mr. Biden’s interview with Robert K. Hur, the special counsel who investigated his handling of classified documents. In a politically explosive report, Mr. Hur concluded that Mr. Biden should not face criminal charges, but he included a line that handed Republicans significant political ammunition, calling the president a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

The Justice Department has already made public a transcript of Mr. Biden’s interview with Mr. Hur, but House Republicans argue they need the recordings to continue their impeachment investigation and examine the president’s mental fitness.

“This is not a complicated matter,” Representative James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky and the chairman of the Oversight Committee, said. “The Oversight and Judiciary committees issued duly authorized, legal subpoenas to Attorney General Garland for a certain set of documents, including the audio recordings of Special Counsel Hur’s interview with President Biden. The attorney general has refused to produce these audio recordings.”

Democrats argued the contempt proceedings were intended to distract from Republicans’ flailing drive to impeach Mr. Biden.

Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, argued that Mr. Garland had produced more than enough documents — in excess of 92,000 — for the Republicans, and he contended that the attorney general had actually been too deferential to the G.O.P.’s demands.

“Unable to come up with any wrongdoing by the president, they have now trained their sights on the attorney general,” Mr. Nadler said. “They accuse him of withholding key evidence, but the attorney general has substantially complied with their every request. Sometimes he has been too responsive, in my opinion, given the obvious bad faith of the MAGA majority.”

But Mr. Comer noted that it was not only the G.O.P. whose members want the audio. Media organizations have filed suit seeking access to the recordings.

Mr. Garland has resisted, contending the release of the audio could set a precedent that endangers the confidentiality of other law enforcement investigations. Democrats have also argued that Republicans have no legitimate legislative purpose in seeking the audio, but merely want to use clips in campaign ads.

Mr. Biden last month asserted executive privilege to deny House Republicans access to recordings. That move was intended to shield Mr. Garland from prosecution.

The House’s contempt case now goes to the U.S. attorney in Washington to consider whether to prosecute the case. Under federal law, contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor charge that carries a fine of $100 to $100,000 and a jail sentence of one month to one year.

There is little chance prosecutors will move forward with a criminal charge. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote in a letter that the agency has long held the view that criminal contempt of Congress charges do not apply, under the Constitution, to executive branch officials who defy a subpoena once a president invokes executive privilege over the materials in question.

The Justice Department also cited executive privilege in opting not to pursue charges against Mr. Barr and Mr. Holder, two of Mr. Garland’s predecessors.

However, the Justice Department has at other times acted on Congress’s contempt cases.

In the last Congress, the Justice Department prosecuted two of four allies of Mr. Trump who were faced contempt citations after they refused to cooperate with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. They were Peter Navarro, who is currently serving a four-month prison sentence after his conviction on the contempt charge, and Stephen K. Bannon, who has been instructed by a federal judge to report by July 1 to serve his four-month sentence on the charge.

Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who led the first impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump, argued Wednesday that Republicans had politicized the committee process beyond recognition and were now baselessly attacking an honorable man.

“Those who bring this motion bring contempt, all right, but only upon themselves,” Mr. Schiff said.