16 May 2024

White House blocks release of Biden’s special counsel interview audio

16 May 2024

The White House has blocked the release of audio from US President Joe Biden’s interview with a special counsel about his handling of classified documents, arguing that Republicans in Congress only wanted the recordings “to chop them up” and use them for political purposes.

The dispute over access to the recordings is at the centre of a Republican effort to hold attorney general Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress and more broadly to hinder the Democratic president’s re-election effort in the final months of the closely contested campaign.

The House judiciary committee later voted to move forward with an effort to hold Mr Garland in contempt of Congress.

“The department has a legal obligation to turn over the requested materials pursuant to the subpoena,” representative Jim Jordan, the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, said during the hearing. “Attorney general Garland’s wilful refusal to comply with our subpoena constitutes contempt of Congress.”

The House panel voted on Thursday afternoon to advance the contempt manoeuvre. A similar vote is scheduled for later today with the House oversight committee.

“The absence of a legitimate need for the audio recordings lays bare your likely goal – to chop them up, distort them, and use them for partisan political purposes,” White House counsel Ed Siskel wrote in a scathing letter to House Republicans ahead of the scheduled votes by the two House committees to refer Mr Garland to the Justice Department for the contempt charges over the department’s refusal to hand over the audio.

“Demanding such sensitive and constitutionally protected law enforcement materials from the Executive Branch because you want to manipulate them for potential political gain is inappropriate,” Mr Siskel added.

Mr Garland separately advised Mr Biden in a letter made public on Thursday that the audio falls within the scope of executive privilege, which protects a president’s ability to obtain candid counsel from his advisers without fear of immediate public disclosure and to protect confidential communications relating to official responsibilities.

Mr Garland told reporters the Justice Department has gone to extraordinary lengths to provide information to the committees about special counsel Robert Hur’s investigation, including a transcript of Mr Biden’s interview with Mr Hur.

But, Mr Garland said, releasing the audio could jeopardise future sensitive and high-profile investigations. Officials have suggested handing over the tape could make future witnesses concerned about co-operating with investigators.

“There have been a series of unprecedented and frankly unfounded attacks on the Justice Department,” Mr Garland said. “This request, this effort to use contempt as a method of obtaining our sensitive law enforcement files is just the most recent.”

The American people will not be able to hear why prosecutors felt the President of the United States was, in special counsel Robert Hur’s own words, an ‘elderly man with a poor memory’, and thus shouldn’t be charged

The Justice Department warned Congress that a contempt effort would create “unnecessary and unwarranted conflict”, with assistant attorney general Carlos Uriarte saying: “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.

Mr Siskel’s letter to politicians comes after the uproar from Mr Biden’s aides and allies over Mr Hur’s comments about Mr Biden’s age and mental acuity, and it highlights concerns in a difficult election year over how potentially embarrassing moments from the lengthy interview could be exacerbated by the release, or selective release, of the audio.

Republican House speaker Mike Johnson criticised the White House’s move, accusing Mr Biden of suppressing the tape because he is afraid to have voters hear it during an election year.

“The American people will not be able to hear why prosecutors felt the President of the United States was, in special counsel Robert Hur’s own words, an ‘elderly man with a poor memory’, and thus shouldn’t be charged,” Mr Johnson said during a press conference.

A transcript of the Hur interview showed Mr Biden struggling to recall some dates and occasionally confusing some details – something longtime aides says he has done for years in both public and private – but otherwise showing deep recall in other areas.

Mr Biden and his aides are particularly sensitive to questions about his age. At 81, he’s the oldest ever president, and he is seeking another four-year term.

Mr 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 Mr Biden.

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

But investigators did find evidence of wilful retention and disclosure related a subset of records found in Mr 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 Mr Biden had vigorously opposed.

Mr Biden kept records that documented his position, including a classified letter to Barack Obama during the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday. Some of that information was shared with a ghostwriter with whom he published memoirs in 2007 and 2017.

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