Republicans back contempt charges over Biden special counsel tapes

A Republican-led panel in the US House of Representatives has approved contempt of Congress charges against Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The Justice Committee was striking out at President Joe Biden’s decision to block the release of audio recordings.

The tapes were of interviews used in Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report that had called the president’s memory and age into question.

Mr Garland determined they were protected by executive privilege.

Mr Garland had determined they were protected by executive privilege.

Another committee is expected to vote to approve the charges on Thursday and then the full chamber will take up the contempt resolution.

The 345-page report, which Mr Hur released in February, was the result of a year-long inquiry into how Mr Biden allegedly mishandled classified documents after leaving the vice-presidency in 2017.

Although the Garland-appointed prosecutor said the 81-year-old had “wilfully” retained top-secret files, he ultimately declined to pursue criminal charges against the president.

Mr Hur wrote that was in part because he believed prosecutors would struggle to secure a conviction against a man that jurors would likely view as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”.

That characterisation came from the president’s five-hour, two-day interview last October with Mr Hur’s team, in which the special counsel said he was unable to recall details relevant to the investigation.

Mr Hur, a Republican, recounted that Mr Biden had also struggled to recall milestones in his own life, including the years of his vice-presidency and when his oldest son Beau had died from cancer.

The revelation shone a spotlight on one of Mr Biden’s biggest political weaknesses – voter concerns about his age and lucidity – and provoked a furious response from Democrats.

“I’m well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man. And I know what the hell I’m doing,” the president said at an impromptu press conference.

Mr Hur defended his report as “necessary, accurate and fair” during a congressional hearing a month after its release.

Congressional Republicans have pushed to learn more about the report, subpoenaing the US justice department for full transcripts of the interview and other relevant documents.

But Mr Garland told his boss in a letter on Wednesday that audio tapes of his interview “fall within the scope of executive privilege” – clearing the deck for the White House to withhold their release.

Executive privilege is a legal doctrine that shields some executive branch records from being made public.

In a Thursday letter to the chairmen of the House judiciary and oversight panels to inform them the recordings would not be released, Mr Garland also criticised Republicans for “a series of unprecedented and frankly, unfounded attacks” on his department.

House Republicans, who allege the Biden administration is “weaponizing the government” against former President Donald Trump, have launched a wide range of probes and subpoenas in recent months.

But Mr Garland noted that the president had fully co-operated with the department’s criminal probe and sat voluntarily for the interview with Mr Hur’s team.

Mr Biden confirmed he was blocking the release of the tapes in a separate letter from his White House counsel to the committee chairmen on Thursday morning.

“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,” it said.

That prompted Republican lawmakers to move ahead on Thursday with a contempt of Congress resolution against Mr Garland.

James Comer, the oversight panel’s top Republican, said Mr Biden and his advisers “clearly fear” the release of the recordings “because it will again reaffirm to the American people that President Biden’s mental state is in decline”.

“The transcript of the interview was released months ago,” Harriet Hageman, who sits on the judiciary panel, wrote in a post on X.

“What is so damning in the audio that this administration is afraid to release them?”

By afternoon, her committee voted 18-15, entirely along partisan lines, to advance the resolution recommending that Mr Garland be held in contempt.

Mr Comer’s committee, however, postponed its own gathering until Thursday night.

Several of its Republican members have travelled to New York to show their support for Mr Trump in his ongoing criminal trial – although it too is expected to approve the measure by a party-line vote.

That will advance the contempt resolution to a vote before the full House.

Republicans currently control the chamber by a single seat and it is unclear if they have the votes to hold Mr Garland in contempt, a move that would refer him for possible prosecution.

If Mr Garland is held in contempt, he will join his predecessors Bill Barr, who served in the the Trump administration, and Eric Holder, who was in former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Neither of those men faced criminal charges.

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