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DOJ says it won’t prosecute AG Garland after House contempt vote

The attorney general didn't break the law when he ignored a subpoena for audio recordings related to a special counsel investigation of President Biden, the Justice Department argued.

WASHINGTON (CN) — More than a decade of Justice Department precedent shields Attorney General Merrick Garland from prosecution after he was held in contempt of Congress, the nation's top law-enforcement agency said on Friday.

House Republicans on Wednesday voted to hold Garland in contempt after he refused to comply with a congressional subpoena demanding audio recordings from special counsel Robert Hur’s interview with President Joe Biden.

In a letter to House Speaker Mike Johnson on Friday, the Justice Department said the attorney general’s conduct “did not constitute a crime” and that they would not refer the congressional contempt citation to a grand jury.

“The longstanding position of the Department is that we will not prosecute an official for contempt of Congress for declining to provide subpoenaed information subject to a presidential assertion of executive privilege,” Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte wrote.

The White House last month invoked executive privilege over the Hur recordings, part of the special counsel’s investigation into President Biden’s handling of classified documents. Both the president and the Justice Department argued that releasing those audio clips could have a chilling effect on the future cooperation of witnesses in high-profile investigations.

Months into an impeachment inquiry against Biden, Republicans argued that audio and transcripts from Hur’s interview would paint a clearer picture of the president’s mental acuity and the special counsel’s decision not to recommend charges against him. On Friday, though, Uriarte reiterated that GOP investigators had not demonstrated a “sufficient need for audio files that would further a legitimate congressional purpose.”

There’s precedent for the Justice Department declining to prosecute Garland for contempt of Congress, the assistant attorney general explained. In 2008, the agency under then-President George W. Bush did not refer charges for two White House officials, who faced a contempt vote after they refused to comply with a congressional investigation into the administration’s role in firing U.S. attorneys.

Both officials were instructed by the Bush White House not to release certain documents under executive privilege, Uriarte said. Officials under former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have also avoided prosecution under similar circumstances, he added.

“Across administrations of both political parties, we have consistently adhered to the position that ‘the contempt of Congress statute was not intended to apply and could not constitutionally be applied to an executive branch official who asserts the president’s claim of executive privilege,’” Uriarte wrote.

House Republicans, who have yet to turn up any solid evidence against President Biden in their impeachment inquiry, seized on special counsel Robert Hur’s report when it came out in February. Although the special counsel said he wouldn’t recommend charges against Biden, he also posited that a jury would be unlikely to convict him because he presented himself as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

The Justice Department’s refusal to prosecute Garland was a widely expected response to the House’s contempt vote, which the White House and Democrats have framed as a political hack job.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Government, National, Politics

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