House Republicans hold Garland in contempt over audio recordings

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies during a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee, Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2024. (Allison Bailey/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Republicans held Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in contempt of Congress Wednesday over a subpoena dispute centered on the Justice Department’s refusal to hand over audio recordings from a special counsel investigation of President Joe Biden.

The 216-207 floor vote is unlikely to lead to any official consequences for Garland. House Republicans argue the audio is needed for congressional oversight, but Democrats contend more partisan motivations are at play. The vote was along party lines, except Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, voted against the measure.


Garland now becomes the third attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress, after Eric Holder during the Obama administration and William Barr during the Trump administration. The Justice Department did not pursue a criminal charge against either.

Republicans argue the case for contempt is simple: Congressional demands for audio of former special counsel Robert K. Hur’s interview with Biden are valid, but the department has refused to release the audio despite subpoenas from the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.

A transcript of the interview, which was conducted as part of a probe into the president’s handling of classified materials, has been released. Last month, Biden invoked executive privilege over the audio.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan said during a floor debate that Garland holds information that’s vital to the committee’s legislative oversight and the House impeachment inquiry of Biden.

“We think we’re entitled — actually 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,” the Ohio Republican said.

Conservatives argue the Biden interview transcripts do not capture the president’s tone and nonverbal context, such as pauses or his pace of delivery, and the recordings are needed to conduct oversight of the special counsel’s decision not to charge the president.

Jordan, at a press conference earlier in the day, said it’s clear Garland will not give up the recordings. “We assume this is going to wind up in court, but we think our case is strong and we think that we will prevail,” he said.

Garland, in a statement after the vote, said the 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.”

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

House Democrats argue the contempt effort is riddled with partisan motivations. Republicans, they argue, are blatantly trying to distract from the recent conviction of former President Donald Trump on 34 criminal counts in New York. Democrats also defended Garland’s reputation and said the Justice Department under his tenure has been responsive to lawmaker inquiries.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said during the floor debate that the way to contest Biden’s executive privilege is in court, not through a contempt resolution.

The New York Democrat said Republicans have engaged in desperate efforts to scrounge up anything to hurt Biden and protect Trump.

“So what do our Republican friends do when an investigation turns up short? Simply put, they engage in fantasy. That’s what they are doing here today. Unable to come up with any wrongdoing by the president, they have now trained their sights on the attorney general,” Nadler said.

Arguments that the audio was needed to understand the pauses, pace and tone of the conversation were “absurd and clearly pretextual,” he said.

The House Judiciary and the House Oversight panels issued subpoenas in February to Garland to compel the production of audio recordings of Hur’s interviews with Biden and a ghostwriter who worked with Biden, according to the Republicans on those committees.

Conservatives zeroed in on Hur’s findings after the special counsel report described Biden’s memory as “significantly limited” in his interview with the special counsel’s office.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., during the floor debate argued that audio would provide unique and important information to advance the House’s impeachment inquiry. The tone, tenor and the nonverbal context went into the decision not to prosecute the president, he argued.

“That prosecutorial discretion is under review by our committee legitimately and constitutionally,” Biggs said. “We have the right to that audio recording.”

Democrats have pointed out that Jordan and Biggs were among the Republican lawmakers who did not comply with a subpoena from the now-disbanded House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said during the floor debate that the two still remain in defiance of a subpoena.

“So get real when Mr. Jordan and Mr. Biggs come to this floor and want to talk and get all righteous about subpoenas,” he said. “You start honoring your subpoenas and we can talk about anyone else’s subpoena.”

Speaker Mike Johnson, when asked at a press conference whether that dynamic undercuts Republican arguments for Garland’s contempt, said he didn’t think the Jan. 6 select committee was “properly constituted.”

“You talk about apples to oranges. There couldn’t be a more clear contrast between that and what we’re talking about here,” Johnson said.

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