House GOP votes to hold Attorney General Garland in contempt over Biden audio recordings

House Republicans voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over the audio recordings of President Joe Biden’s interviews with former special counsel Robert Hur, who investigated Biden’s handling of classified material and declined to bring charges.

The vote marks a major escalation in a monthslong dispute over the recordings between House Republicans and the executive branch that came after Biden asserted executive privilege over the files. The vote was 216 to 207 with one Republican – Rep. Dave Joyce of Ohio – voting against it.

Garland said in a statement after the vote that it is “deeply disappointing that this House of Representatives has turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon.”

“Today’s 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,” Garland said.

Now that the contempt resolution against Garland has succeeded, House Speaker Mike Johnson will certify the report to the United States attorney for the District of Columbia. Under law, this certification then requires the US attorney to “bring the matter before the grand jury for its action,” but the Justice Department will also make its own determinations for prosecuting.

Democrats have used the process several times as they ran into uncooperative allies and former aides to Trump during their investigation into the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. The Department of Justice ultimately did not pursue charges against Trump aide Dan Scavino and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. But federal prosecutors did take two Trump allies, Stephen Bannon and former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro to trial on the criminal contempt charges.

Holding the nation’s top law enforcement officer in contempt builds on Republican allegations that the Justice Department has been weaponized against conservatives, claims that have been particularly ratcheted up in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s conviction in New York for falsifying business records.

Through their subpoena fight with the Justice Department, House Republicans have argued that the audio recordings are crucial to their impeachment inquiry into Biden, which remains stalled as the prospects of the investigation ending in impeachment are increasingly unlikely.

House GOP leadership said Tuesday evening that they were confident they had the votes in their narrow majority to hold Garland in contempt, but they worked behind the scenes to lock down their members ahead of Wednesday’s floor vote.

A handful of House Republicans had privately voiced concerns about supporting the contempt resolution, raising questions over whether the conference with its narrow majority would have the votes to pass it, a source familiar told CNN. Still, House Republicans announced Tuesday evening that the vote would go forward Wednesday.

“We’re going to bring it up and pass it (on Wednesday),” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise told CNN ahead of the vote.

Ahead of the vote, Garland released an op-ed declaring that he would not be intimidated by “baseless, personal and dangerous” attacks, echoing the defiant stance he had while being grilled by Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

In April, CNN sued for access to the recordings of Biden’s interview.

The back-and-forth over the audio recordings

The monthslong clash between the House GOP and DOJ began when the trio of Republican-led committees leading the impeachment inquiry into the president subpoenaed the department in February for transcripts, documents and audio recordings related to Hur’s investigation.

The department has made the majority of the subpoenaed materials available to House Republicans, including transcripts of the special counsel’s interviews with Biden and his ghostwriter, and allowing Hur to testify on Capitol Hill in March.

But, DOJ has stood by its decision not to release the audio files of the interviews, claiming that Republicans have not established a legitimate legislative purpose for demanding them. The Justice Department has also argued that the specific privacy concerns related to an audio recording of an interview are distinct from those of a written transcript, and that the release of such an audio file could dissuade cooperation from future witnesses in criminal investigations.

Republicans maintain that access to the tapes provide valuable information beyond what a written transcript can provide.

In their contempt report they argued “the verbal nuances in President Biden’s answers about his mishandling of classified information would assist the Committees’ inquiry into whether he abused his office of public trust for his family’s financial gain.”

Republicans have also said the DOJ must comply with the full extent of their subpoena instead of seeking to dictate what materials fulfilled their needs.

“This is not a complicated matter,” House Oversight Chairman James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, said at the markup of the contempt resolution against Garland on Tuesday.

“The executive branch and its agencies, including the Department of Justice, are not above Congress’ right to oversee those agencies. We, as members of the House of Representatives, have a duty to ensure congressional subpoenas are fully complied with by those who receive them,” Comer added.

Without supplying evidence to support his claims, Comer also claimed that part of the reason Republicans need the audio files is to determine whether the transcripts have been altered, and that it is “insufficient to simply take the Justice Department at its word.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has grilled Republicans about their motives for seeking the audio files.

White House Counsel Edward Siskel has accused Republicans of wanting to distort the audio recordings.

“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,” Siskel wrote.

DOJ Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte has also accused House Republicans of only wanting the audio recordings for political purposes given that the transcripts provide them with whatever they are looking for.

“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,” Uriarte wrote.

The special counsel report quickly became a political problem for the president, spotlighting an issue that has proven to be intractable for Biden: his age. Republicans have seized on Hur’s description of Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” in his final report, a characterization that Biden has disputed, as they continue to go after the president in the lead up to the November election.

The White House and Biden’s campaign reacted furiously to Hur’s characterization of the president, launching a fierce defense aimed at beating back the special counsel’s allegations that Biden was forgetful — particularly on the matter of whether the president recalled the year in which his son died.

In the lead up to Wednesday’s contempt vote, Democrats bashed their Republican colleagues for pursuing contempt of Garland.

“There is plainly no basis for holding Attorney General of the United States Merrick Garland in contempt unless we are going to start holding people in contempt for complying with the committee’s demands,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said on Tuesday.

Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York accused Republicans of pursuing contempt of Garland on behalf of Trump.

“This resolution may boost Donald Trump’s spirits before his sentencing for his conviction on 34 felonies, but it will certainly not convince the Department of Justice to produce the one remaining file in question,” he said.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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