White House blocks release of Biden’s special counsel interview audio, says GOP is being political

The dispute over access to the recordings is at the center of a Republican effort to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress.

Published - May 17, 2024 02:41 am IST - WASHINGTON

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during the 36th Annual Candlelight Vigil to honor the law enforcement officers who lost their lives in 2023, in Washington, on May 13, 2024.  File

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during the 36th Annual Candlelight Vigil to honor the law enforcement officers who lost their lives in 2023, in Washington, on May 13, 2024. File | Photo Credit: AP

The White House has blocked the release of audio from President Joe Biden’s interview with a special counsel about his handling of classified documents, arguing on May 16 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 center of a Republican effort to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress and more broadly to hinder the Democratic president's reelection effort in the final months of the closely contested campaign.

“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 scheduled votes by 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 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.

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

Mr. Garland said in his letter to Mr. Biden that lawmakers' efforts "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."

The Justice Department also 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 lawmakers comes after the uproar from Mr. Biden’s aides and allies over special counsel Robert 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.

The transcript of the Hur interview showed Mr. Biden struggling to recall some dates and occasionally confusing some details — something longtime aides says he’s 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's 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 Mr. Biden.

Hur’s report said many of the documents recovered at the Penn Biden Center 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 willful 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 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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