US Attorney General Merrick Garland held in contempt of US Congress

Merrick Garland
Merrick Garland (Image: AP)

The US House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress.

The Republican-controlled chamber passed its resolution by a 216-207 vote, with only one Republican siding with the united Democratic opposition.

Mr Garland refused to turn over interview tapes from a justice department probe of President Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents.

Reacting to the contempt vote, he said House Republicans had “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,” he wrote in a statement.

America’s top law enforcement officer now becomes only the third attorney general in US history, and fourth sitting cabinet member overall, to be held in contempt of Congress.

The contempt resolution recommends that the justice department make a decision on whether or not to criminally prosecute Mr Garland.

Under federal law, contempt is a misdemeanour charge punishable by up to one year in jail and a $100,000 (£78,000) fine. Steve Bannon, an ally of former President Donald Trump, faces four months behind bars over a contempt citation, while former Trump aide Peter Navarro is already serving time on his own charge.

But Wednesday’s vote functions as a partisan exercise given that a justice department prosecutor would almost certainly not pursue criminal charges against the head of their own agency.

Attorneys General William Barr and Eric Holder, who respectively served the preceding Republican and Democratic administrations, also were held in contempt of Congress along partisan lines. Neither faced criminal charges.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, however, described the vote as “a significant step in maintaining the integrity of our oversight processes and responsibilities”.

Moderate Ohio lawmaker David Joyce was the lone Republican to oppose the resolution, as did all 206 Democrats present for the vote.

“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 statement.

The push to hold Mr Garland in contempt follows a year-long inquiry by Special Counsel Robert Hur into Mr Biden’s retention of classified documents after he served as vice-president.

Mr Biden was vice-president from 2009-17 in Barack Obama’s administration.

In a lengthy report released in February, Mr Hur concluded that no criminal charges were warranted, though Mr Biden appeared to have “willfully” retained classified materials as a private citizen.

The Garland-appointed prosecutor noted he believed prosecutors would struggle to secure a conviction against Mr Biden, as jurors likely would view him as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”.

That characterisation came after the president sat for five hours of interviews, spanning two days last October, with Mr Hur’s team.

He said that Mr Biden was unable to recall certain details relevant to the investigation, as well as milestones in his own life such as the years of his vice-presidency and when his oldest son, Beau, died from cancer.

The report’s release sparked a political firestorm, highlighting for critics one of the president’s biggest weaknesses – voter concerns about his age and lucidity – in the midst of his bid for re-election.

Lawyers for Mr Biden disputed descriptions of the interview, accusing Mr Hur of using “highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events”.

In March, Mr Garland provided congressional Republicans with a full transcript of the interview – but he has resisted their subpoenas demanding audio recordings of the conversation.

On his advice, the president last month invoked “executive privilege” to block congressional Republicans from accessing tapes of the interview. The legal doctrine grants presidents the right to withhold executive branch information from the other two branches of government.

Mr Garland argued that turning them over could “chill cooperation with the department in future investigations”.

In testimony before Congress last week, he slammed Republicans’ contempt measure as “only the most recent in a long line of attacks” on his agency’s work.

Republicans claim the Biden administration has “weaponised” the justice department against its political opponents – largely a reference to the criminal prosecutions of former President Donald Trump.

This is despite the fact Mr Garland’s justice department has also prosecuted Mr Biden’s son, Hunter, and two sitting Democratic members of Congress.

In a Washington Post opinion piece on Tuesday, the attorney general wrote that “the Justice Department is under attack like never before”.

He cited a rise in “conspiracy theories, falsehoods, violence and threats of violence” towards department officials by Republican critics”.

“The short-term political benefits of those tactics will never make up for the long-term cost to our country,” he said.

Source: bbc.co.uk

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