Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

GOP-run House votes to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt

Attorney General Merrick Garland is sworn in as he testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 4.  (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post)
By Devlin Barrett and Marianna Sotomayor Washington Post

The Republican-controlled House voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress – a politically charged broadside against the Biden administration that comes a day after Garland’s Justice Department won a conviction against Biden’s son Hunter on felony gun charges.

The vote, which passed with an initial tally of 216-207, marks the third time in a dozen years that a sitting attorney general was found in contempt by a majority of House members – an indicator of the rising partisanship in Washington, and how that partisanship has increasingly been aimed at the nation’s top law enforcement officials.

Wednesday’s vote is largely symbolic, in that it urges federal prosecutors to investigate and file criminal charges against the attorney general, but that is extremely unlikely to happen, given the Justice Department’s past practice and legal analysis.

In the run-up to the vote, Garland had vowed not to be intimidated by the threat of contempt.

“It is deeply disappointing that this House of Representatives has turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon,” the attorney general said in a written statement after the vote, which he said “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. I will always stand up for this Department, its employees, and its vital mission to defend our democracy.”

Until 2012, a sitting member of the president’s Cabinet had never faced such a sanction. Since then, it’s happened a handful of times, mostly to attorneys general who came under fire for the department’s handling of politically charged cases.

Republicans said Garland was in contempt of Congress for not turning over audiotapes of an interview with President Biden conducted last year by special counsel Robert K. Hur. The Justice Department had previously provided lawmakers with a transcript of that interview but refused to turn over the audiotapes, invoking executive privilege and saying it would set a bad precedent to share such audio for future high-profile cases that do not lead to criminal charges.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., called the contempt vote “essential to ensure transparency and accountability within the Special Counsel’s office. It is up to Congress – not the Executive Branch – to determine what materials it needs to conduct its own investigations, and there are consequences for refusing to comply with lawful Congressional subpoenas.”

Rep. Dave Joyce (Ohio) was the only Republican to vote against the measure. “As a former prosecutor, I cannot in good conscience support a resolution that would further politicize our judicial system to score political points,” he said in a written statement. “The American people expect Congress to work for them, solve policy problems, and prioritize good governance. Enough is enough.”

Biden was interviewed as part of an investigation into classified documents found at his home and former office space. Hur ultimately concluded that there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges.

Republicans have argued that Garland’s Justice Department has failed to aggressively investigate Biden and his family. A day before the contempt vote, the Justice Department won a jury verdict against Hunter Biden, who was convicted on three felony counts for lying on a gun form and illegally possessing a gun in 2018 as a drug addict. Garland appointed the special counsel that brought the case, and is prosecuting another set of tax charges against Hunter Biden that is scheduled for trial in September.

A contempt of Congress vote means that lawmakers are recommending that the Justice Department file criminal charges against Garland. In the previous two instances of a sitting attorney general being voted by House members to be in contempt, the U.S. attorney in Washington declined to pursue the case.

Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said on the House floor that the vote is a baldly political attack on the administration of justice and that, historically, disputes about executive privilege were settled by litigation in federal court.

Republicans are “on a single-minded quest to follow every right-wing conspiracy theory in the vain hope that it might lead to some evidence of wrongdoing,” Nadler said. “And what exactly have they delivered to the American people on their investment? Nothing.”

Across Republican and Democratic administrations, government lawyers have long maintained that the invocation of executive privilege cannot lead to contempt of Congress charges.

The Garland vote is the latest salvo by congressional Republicans against senior leaders of the Biden administration. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was impeached by the House this year by a razor-thin one-vote margin, after three Republicans voted against the party’s push.

Though House Republicans have launched an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, committees investigating the matter have been unable to muster support for a vote on removing the Democratic president.

The House Oversight and Judiciary Committees both approved a report on party lines that recommended Garland be held in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over audio recordings demanded in congressional subpoenas.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said at a news conference Wednesday that Republicans are “entitled to all the evidence” and said the audio recording was the best evidence.

“That’s why we sent the subpoena. The attorney general has been clear he’s not going to give that information to us. So that’s why we have the contempt resolution,” he said. “We’ve assumed this is going to wind up in court, but we think our case is strong, and we think that we will prevail.”