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Garland contempt vote scheduled for next week

House impeachment investigators will meet next week to vote on whether to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt as part of their quest to gain access to an audio recording of an interview conducted with President Biden during his classified documents probe.  

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and House Oversight and Accountability Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) have a transcript of Biden’s interview with special counsel Robert Hur, but the Justice Department has held back from sharing the audio files.

The substance of the recording has little to do with their impeachment investigation into Biden. But the panels have nonetheless sought the audio, as well as two documents found in his home that dealt with Ukraine.

The Justice Department has twice urged the committees not to escalate the matter, and last month said the two chairs requested the information based on “political purposes that should have no role” in determining which law enforcement files are shared.

“It seems that the more information you receive, the less satisfied you are, and the less justification you have for contempt, the more you rush towards it,” Carlos Uriarte, head of legislative affairs for the Justice Department, wrote to Jordan and Comer last month.

The department declined comment Tuesday morning but has taken the stance that turning over its investigative files would have a chilling effect as it seeks cooperation across various probes.

House Republicans have defended their interest in the audio, saying the format contains “revealing verbal cues” and that “a subject’s pauses and inflections can provide context or evidence of whether a subject is evasive or suffers from a ‘poor memory.’”

“The Department’s unsupported speculation about the Committees’ motives in insisting that you produce the audio recordings has no bearing on your legal obligation to produce the subpoenaed materials,” they wrote last month.

The contempt vote, if approved, would go from the committee to the full House floor.

Though censure of a sitting attorney general would be remarkable, it would likely have little practical effect: contempt votes largely act as a referral to the Justice Department, which then weighs whether there are grounds for contempt of Congress charges.

The coming hearing is not the first time that the two chairs have threatened contempt as part of their impeachment investigation.

Last summer, the duo was prepared to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt over access to the FD-1023 file memorializing an interview with a bureau informant who alleged Biden accepted a bribe while serving as vice president.

The informant has since been arrested on charges related to fabricating the claim.

An attorney general has been held in contempt only twice before.

In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt for refusing to turn over documents related to the Operation Fast and Furious, where law enforcement failed to intervene as some 2,000 guns were sold.

The department took no further action against Holder.

Trump-era Attorney General Bill Barr was also held in contempt for skirting a subpoena dealing with changes made to the census form, and the department likewise took no additional action.

Biden’s interview with Hur focuses on how documents from his tenure as vice president ended up in his home and in an office he used once leaving the administration.

The interview was the basis for Hur’s conclusion that Biden would likely be perceived as “an elderly man with a poor memory” by a jury, even as he likewise wrote that he failed to find sufficient evidence to support any charges.

The Justice Department insists its decision to withhold the recording is not political, but rather consistent with their prerogative of protecting their investigations.

“The decision to sit down with investigators and prosecutors should not include a tacit invitation for the Committees to participate, comment, or apply selective hindsight,” Uriarte wrote last month.

“It would be severely chilling if the decision to cooperate with a law enforcement investigation required individuals to submit themselves to public inquest by politicians.”

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