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Panel advances Garland contempt after WH blocks access to Biden tape

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee voted to move forward with an effort to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress hours after the White House blocked access to an audio recording of President Joe Biden’s interview with a special counsel who oversaw an investigation into his handling of classified documents.

“The department has a legal obligation to turn over the requested materials pursuant to the subpoena,” Rep. Jim Jordan, the GOP chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said during the hearing. “Attorney General Garland’s willful refusal to comply with our subpoena constitutes contempt of Congress.”

The House panel voted Thursday afternoon to advance the contempt maneuver. A similar vote is scheduled for later Thursday with the House oversight committee.

The dispute over access to the recordings is at the center of a Republican effort to have the full House hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress and more broadly to hinder the Democratic president’s reelection effort in the final months of the closely contested campaign.

But the timing of any vote by the full House, and the willingness of the U.S. attorney’s office to act on the referral, remain uncertain. If House Republicans’ efforts are ultimately successful, Garland will become the third attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress. The White House slammed the move in a letter earlier Thursday, labeling efforts to obtain the audio as purely political.

“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 Ed Siskel wrote in a scathing letter to House Republicans ahead of scheduled votes by the two House committees to refer Garland to the Justice Department for the contempt charges.

“Demanding such sensitive and constitutionally-protected law enforcement materials from the Executive Branch because you want to manipulate them for potential political gain is inappropriate,” Siskel added.

Garland separately advised Biden in a letter made public Thursday that the audio falls within the scope of executive privilege, which protects a president’s ability to obtain candid counsel from his advisers without fear of immediate public disclosure and to protect confidential communications relating to official responsibilities.

The attorney general told reporters that the Justice Department has gone to extraordinary lengths to provide information to the committees about special counsel Robert Hur’s investigation, including a transcript of Biden’s interview with Hur. But, Garland said, releasing the audio could jeopardize future sensitive and high-profile investigations. Officials have suggested handing over the tape could make future witnesses concerned about cooperating with investigators.

“There have been a series of unprecedented and frankly unfounded attacks on the Justice Department,” Garland said. “This request, this effort to use contempt as a method of obtaining our sensitive law enforcement files is just most recent.”

The Justice Department warned Congress that a contempt effort would create “unnecessary and unwarranted conflict,” with Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte saying: “It is the longstanding position of the executive branch held by administrations of both parties that an official who asserts the president’s claim of executive privilege cannot be held in contempt of Congress.

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