Garland rips ‘unfounded’ effort to hold him in contempt after Biden asserts executive privilege over Hur audio

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Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday slammed ‘unprecedented, frankly unfounded attacks on the Justice Department,’ defending President Biden’s decision to assert executive privilege to block subpoenas for audio of Biden’s interview with special counsel Robert Hur regarding classified documents found in his possession. 

On his way to an FBI memorial for fallen agents, Garland briefly took questions from reporters before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee and the Judiciary Committee were each expected to hold a hearing to recommend that the full House refers the attorney general to the Justice Department for the contempt charges over the department’s refusal to hand over the audio.

‘In your professional capacity, you suggested to the president to invoke executive privilege. He invoked executive privilege. It protects you both personally. Is that a conflict of interest?’ one reporter asked. 

‘The Justice Department is a fundamental institution of our democracy. People depend on us to ensure our investigations and our prosecutions are conducted according to the facts and the law and without political influence,’ Garland said in response. ‘We have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the committees get responses to their legitimate requests, but this is not one.’

‘To the contrary, this is one that would harm our ability in the future to successfully pursue sensitive investigations,’ he continued. ‘There have been a series of unprecedented, frankly unfounded attacks on the Justice Department. This request, this effort to use contempt as a method of obtaining our sensitive law enforcement files is just the most recent effort to threaten, defund our investigations, and the way in which there are contributions to an atmosphere that puts our agents and our prosecutors at risk. These are wrong. Look, the only thing I can do is continue to do the right thing. I will protect this building and its people.’ 

Another reporter asked what the request for the Hur recordings, ‘combined with the efforts to defund Jack Smith and the other attacks on Biden administration officials say about the broader effort to discredit [Garland] and discredit the Justice Department.’ 

‘We have to go about our work following the federal principles of prosecution,’ Garland responded, explaining what he can do as attorney general. ‘We follow the facts and the law. We screen out outside, inappropriate influences. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re protecting our ability to continue to do high-profile and sensitive investigations, and we will continue to do that.’

A third reporter, the final one given the chance to grill Garland before he left for the memorial, said the ‘odds now seem vanishingly small the two Jack Smith federal cases are going to begin trial, let alone finish trial this year,’ asking ‘what does that say about the pace of the justice system and confidence in the Justice Department.’ 

‘The special counsel brought both cases last year. He appropriately requested speedy trials. The matter is now in the hands of the judiciary and I’m not going to be able to comment any further on that,’ Garland said.

Garland advised Biden in a letter on Thursday that the audio falls within the scope of executive privilege. Garland told the Democratic president that the ‘committee’s needs are plainly insufficient to outweigh the deleterious effects that the production of the recordings would have on the integrity and effectiveness of similar law enforcement investigations in the future.’

Assistant Attorney General Carlos Felipe Uriarte urged lawmakers not to proceed with the contempt effort to avoid ‘unnecessary and unwarranted conflict.’

‘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,’ Uriarte wrote.

White House Counsel Ed Siskel wrote in a separate, scathing letter to Congress on Thursday that lawmakers’ effort to obtain the recording was absent any legitimate purpose and lays bare their likely goal — ‘to chop them up, distort them, and use them for partisan political purposes.’ The White House letter is a tacit admission that there are moments from the Hur interview it fears portrays Biden in a negative light in an election year — and that could be exacerbated by the release, or selective release, of the audio.

The transcript of the Hur interview showed Biden struggling to recall some dates and occasionally confusing some details — something longtime aides say he has done for years in both public and private — but otherwise showing deep recall in other areas. Biden and his aides are particularly sensitive to questions about his age. At 81, he is the oldest ever president, and he is seeking another four-year term.

Hur, a former senior official in the Trump administration Justice Department, was appointed as a special counsel in January 2023 following the discovery of classified documents in multiple locations tied to Biden.

Hur’s report said many of the documents recovered at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, in parts of Biden’s Delaware home and in his Senate papers at the University of Delaware were retained by ‘mistake.’

However, investigators did find evidence of willful retention and disclosure related to a subset of records found in Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, house, including in a garage, an office and a basement den.

The files pertain to a troop surge in Afghanistan during the Obama administration that Biden had vigorously opposed. Biden kept records that documented his position, including a classified letter to Obama during the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday. Some of that information was shared with a ghostwriter with whom he published memoirs in 2007 and 2017.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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