Republican-controlled US House votes to hold attorney general in contempt

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Garland testifies before Republican-led House Judiciary Committee

By Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt for refusing to turn over audio recordings of a special counsel interview with Democratic President Joe Biden.

The measure passed 216-207 on a party-line basis with one Republican joining Democrats in voting no.

The Department of Justice has already turned over a transcript of the interview, which set off a political firestorm in February when Special Counsel Robert Hur released a report describing Biden, 81, as a "well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

The White House has asserted that the recordings are covered by executive privilege, and a vote by the House to hold Garland in contempt would put the Justice Department in the awkward position of having to decide whether to prosecute its own leader. It is not required to take up the charges.

"It is deeply disappointing that this House of Representatives has turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon," Garland said in a statement. "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 is the third attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress, following Democratic President Barack Obama's attorney general Eric Holder and Republican President Donald Trump's Bill Barr. The Justice Department did not pursue charges in either case.

"Transcripts alone are not sufficient evidence of the state of the president's memory," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan said as debate opened.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, the senior Democrat on the panel, countered that Republicans were 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."

Hur, who had investigated Biden after classified documents dating to his time as vice president from 2009-2017 were found improperly stored in his home and office, declined to prosecute the president, saying it was both because he had cooperated with the probe and because he would present a sympathetic face to a jury.

Biden's rival in the Nov. 5 election, Trump, has been criminally charged for mishandling classified documents after his 2017-2021 term in the White House. Unlike Biden, Trump refused requests to return the documents.

Congressional Democrats have alleged that Republicans want the audio to use in campaign ads for Trump.

Garland has repeatedly accused House Republicans of impugning the Justice Department's integrity and pushing false narratives that could put career civil servants in danger.

In addition to the case involving classified documents, Trump, who was convicted in May by a jury for falsifying business records, faces two other state and federal criminal cases related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Sarah N. Lynch and Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)