House GOP sues Garland over Biden-Hur audio

House Republicans are suing Attorney General Merrick Garland for audio of former special counsel Robert Hur’s 2023 interview with President Joe Biden.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is a dramatic, but unsurprising, escalation of Republicans’ weekslong standoff with the administration over the recordings.

Top GOP investigators and Speaker Mike Johnson had signaled they would take the battle to court.

The GOP-led House Judiciary Committee, in its filing, is asking the court to find that Garland’s refusal to hand over the audio recordings “lacks legal justification” and order the attorney general to turn them over to the House panel. The Justice Department didn’t immediately weigh in on the lawsuit.

Republicans seized on Hur’s report, which examined Biden’s alleged mishandling of classified documents, and homed in on a line from the former special counsel that warned the president would be viewed by a jury as a “sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.”

Republicans pointed back to that descriptor in their filing on Monday, adding that “verbal and nonverbal context is quite important here.”

“The audio recordings, not the cold transcripts, are the best available evidence of how President Biden presented himself during the interview,” the court filing read.

A DOJ official, in court filings in a separate case with outside groups seeking the audio, said the transcript matches the audio except for filler words or when words were repeated. The official added that Hur and FBI personnel present for the interview agreed the transcript “accurately reflects” the audio except for those minor instances.

The legal fight comes after two committees —led by Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) and Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), respectively — advanced resolutions in mid-May recommending the attorney general be held in contempt for defying their subpoenas for the audio. 

Biden effectively precluded Garland from facing criminal charges by asserting executive privilege over the audio just hours before the House committee votes. But House Republicans still moved forward with voting to hold him in contempt on the House floor, with only one Republican siding with Democrats against the step.

The Justice Department quickly notified Johnson that in line with long-standing department policy Garland wouldn’t face charges for refusing to hand over records that fell under executive privilege. The Justice Department similarly didn’t prosecute then-Attorney General William Barr or then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross after the House held them in contempt during the Trump administration.

Garland did hand over the transcript of the interview and made other documents referenced in Hur’s report available to the committees, but the Justice Department argued that handing over the audio could negatively affect cooperation in future investigations.

The Justice Department has also pushed back on the idea that handing over the transcripts waves executive privilege for the audio. Republicans, however, in their court filing on Monday called the assertion “frivolous” and “at odds with common sense,” since the DOJ had handed over the transcript.

In addition to the lawsuit, Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) has filed a resolution to fine Garland $10,000 per day until he hands over the audio and said it will come to the floor next week for a vote.

Luna and Johnson have discussed her resolution. But Johnson, asked about the idea on Friday, said he hadn’t yet committed to backing her bill — pointing to their lawsuit.

“I think the easiest way, the best way, is to allow the third branch to resolve this dispute between the executive and legislative branch. There may be other avenues that we can pursue, and we’re looking into all that, but we’re not committed to anything yet,” Johnson said.