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House GOP moves toward holding Garland in contempt of Congress

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House Republicans took the first step toward holding Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress — dramatically escalating their standoff with the Justice Department.

The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Thursday to recommend that the full House hold Garland in contempt. The Oversight Committee is expected to take a similar step on Thursday night. The referral still requires a majority on the House floor before it goes to a U.S. attorney, which means it needs to win over more than a dozen politically vulnerable Republican centrists who have expressed unease about their party’s growing antagonism toward the DOJ.

The move stems from the Justice Department defying House Republican subpoenas for audio of then-special counsel Robert Hur’s interview with President Joe Biden. The White House informed GOP lawmakers on Thursday morning that the president had asserted executive privilege over the recordings.

Biden’s effort effectively precludes any criminal prosecution of Garland for failing to comply with the Hill subpoenas. But Republicans vowed to move forward with the contempt recommendation anyway — taking a symbolic shot at an administration official who has become their frequent rhetorical targets. And Republicans aren’t ruling out a lawsuit to try to get the recordings.

“We think it’s important we, as an oversight body, see all the evidence,” Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told reporters about the decision to move forward with the contempt proceedings.

Republicans have homed in on Hur’s investigation of Biden’s handling of classified documents as part of a sweeping impeachment inquiry into the president, which has largely focused on the business deals of his family members. Though the impeachment effort has essentially stalled, as Republicans lack the clear evidence centrists have said they need to vote for removing the president, GOP investigators are continuing their probe behind the scenes.

Hur warned in his report released by the Justice Department earlier this year that Biden could be perceived by jurors as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” — a description that sparked fierce criticism from Biden and congressional Democrats.

But Republicans have seized on the phrase, and requested the transcript of Hur’s interview with Biden, as well as the audio and other documents referenced in the former special counsel’s report. While the Justice Department provided access to the requested documents, and handed over the transcript, it has pushed back strongly against releasing the audio.

“This is an impeachment inquiry. … We are investigating very legitimate questions,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas). “It is critically important for the purposes of this body to determine where we’re going to go with an impeachment inquiry, or any legislative inquiry, to determine what the president’s demeanor was during that interview.”

If a majority of the House did vote to hold Garland in contempt, the matter would then be referred to U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves, who is under the umbrella of the DOJ. Graves would determine whether to pursue criminal charges or set it aside, and would take executive privilege into account.

Democrats accused Republicans of focusing on Hur’s findings to try to revive a politically motivated impeachment effort. And they believe the GOP wants the audio so that it can be used by the Trump campaign in ads heading into the November election.

House Democrats also tried, and failed, to amend the GOP’s Garland contempt resolution, including to note that the committee has “serious concerns about the competency of Donald Trump.” Republicans, who run the panel, rejected those amendments.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Why do my Republican colleagues need this audio file at all? …They think they can manipulate President Biden’s voice to make it to the next Trump for president ad,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) said on Thursday.

Thursday’s back-and-forth comes after a weeks-long battle between Republicans and the Justice Department for the Hur audio. Both Jordan and Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) subpoenaed the audio, and warned that they would initiate contempt proceedings against Garland unless the Justice Department complied.

But the DOJ raised a myriad of concerns about giving the audio to Congress, including that it could negatively impact cooperation with future investigations. Officials also said Republicans hadn’t made an adequate case for what they would get from the audio that they couldn’t get from the transcript.

“The Committees’ needs are plainly insufficient to outweigh the deleterious effects that productions of the recordings would have on the integrity and effectiveness of similar law enforcement investigations in the future,” Garland wrote in a letter to Biden on Wednesday.