Politics / June 13, 2024

House Republicans Have Voted to Hold Merrick Garland in Contempt

The vote followed demands that the US attorney general turn over recordings of President Biden’s interviews with Robert Hur.

Chris Lehmann

Attorney General Merrick Garland is sworn in as he testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Department of Justice, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

(Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As of yesterday, US Attorney General Merrick Garland can add a new credential to his CV: the first federal official to be found in contempt of Congress for platform agnosticism. Garland has refused to supply Ohio GOP Representative Jim Jordan’s Judiciary Committee with the audio recordings of special counsel Robert Hur’s five-hour interview with President Joe Biden in the probe of Biden’s alleged misuse of classified documents relating to his vice presidency as he began to research a book. After complying with Congress’s request for information, the attorney general failed to grace them with sounds—or rather, the absence of them: the interspersed silences, stammers, and aporias that could deliver an audio picture of President Joe Biden wrestling with an overtaxed memory and cognitive distress. 

The committee had already hosted Hur himself to explain his decision not to pursue charges against Biden, along with soliciting his impressions of Biden’s failing memory. And Garland had also agreed to furnish Jordan’s panel with a full transcript of the Biden interview. But with other fronts in Congress’s great rolling inquisition against the “Biden crime family” indefinitely stalled, and its marquee event—the long-touted Biden impeachment proceedings—likewise in evidence-challenged limbo, the MAGA-lubricated machinery of legislative inquiry has gone into gnat-straining overdrive.

Not content with Garland’s own five-hour grilling before Jordan’s panel last week, House GOP leaders have set upon the Hur recordings as though they were a mystic healing relic, possessing the power to dispel the many recent embarrassments the justice system has visited on the Trump movement and its maximum leader—or, failing that, to at least make them appear like serious lawmakers for a fleeting moment or two before the chamber hurriedly adjourned in time for the annual congressional baseball game.

The vote broke down on party lines, 216-207, with Jordan’s Ohio colleague David Joyce the lone GOP vote against the resolution. In the coming weeks, House Speaker Mike Johnson will certify the contempt report to the US Attorney for the District of Columbia, who is supposed to bring the finding before a grand jury for resolution. The Department of Justice—yes, the agency that the alleged offender himself directs—will make a separate determination about whether to pursue a prosecution of Garland.

Surely, even the notoriously buttoned-down and methodical Garland—who was once refused even a hearing on his 2016 nomination to the US Supreme Court thanks to the bullshit power chicanery of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—has to savor the many gruesome ironies on display here. For starters, of course, Jordan himself has for nearly two years been in contempt of a congressional subpoena to appear before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol. Just this past week, another subpoena-defying MAGA ideologue, former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, filed a desperate last-ditch appeal to be spared his four-month tour in the hoosegow come July. (Former Trump White House trade official Peter Navarro, another refusenik of the January 6 inquiry, tried the same Hail Mary tactic; he became a federal inmate in March.) 

Garland himself, meanwhile, had kept on the Trump-appointed special prosecutor David Weiss whose work culminated in this week’s conviction of Biden’s son Hunter on charges of lying on a federal firearms form. Simple logic dictates that if Garland is working assiduously to carry out the diktats of his boss in the Oval Office, landing said boss’s lone surviving son in jail is pretty much the worst way to go about it. 

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Shall I continue? There is also, of course, the recent criminal conviction of Donald Trump in New York on fraud charges related to the catch-and-kill payoff of former porn star and alleged dissatisfied Trump paramour Stormy Daniels. That adverse turn of legal fortune produced, like clockwork, a freshly announced inquiry by Jordan’s panel into the alleged federal “weaponization” of the justice system against the divine right of Trump to carry out all manner of fraud, conspiracy, and free-form mendacity with unobstructed privilege and impunity. And then there’s the MAGA House’s most cherished brand of retributive table-pounding: the Biden impeachment, which Johnson gamely tried to will back into relevance the day of Garland’s contempt vote.

This is the backdrop for not merely the content-challenged Garland vote but also the widespread right-wing denigration of the rule of law as “lawfare”—i.e., an unyielding system of political persecution and judicial tyranny—when it has any MAGA-affiliated suspect in its sights. It’s a beguilingly elastic alibi for a movement whose leaders have long revered mob chieftains, and whose present leader sits at the nexus of a wide array of alleged and court-recognized criminal acts—most tellingly in the Mar-a-Lago documents case brought by special prosecutor Jack Smith. That glaring instance of executive lawlessness is the sole reason for all the spittle-flecked posturing around Biden’s plainly less-consequential documents case—it furnishes MAGA warriors like Jordan and House Oversight Chair James Comer the mandate to carry out lengthy and lavishly funded investigations into charges that, in reality, are little more than glorified Truth Social posts about a rigged system running on the grand perfidy of election interference.

Garland had few good options in facing down the petty hectoring of the GOP-led House, beyond his repeated vows before Jordan’s panel that he wouldn’t allow his DOJ to be intimidated by vengeance-seeking MAGA apparatchiks. In May, the Biden White House had finally asserted executive privilege over the Hur tapes after months of GOP tantrum-throwing. Part of the calculation behind that decision, no doubt, was that GOP leaders would swiftly comb through the recordings for damning sonic suggestions that Biden is suffering from basic cognitive decline—the same way that right-wing digital wizards distributed altered footage of Biden at the recent D-Day memorial in Normandy appearing to seat himself in a phantom chair. Whatever the reasoning, the plain fact is that executive privilege claims are litigated in the courts—not quashed by harum-scarum contempt votes.

Yet the mounting legal woes of MAGA world mean that there’s no percentage in playing out legal disputes in the forums designated to resolve them. In the Trump catechism, that’s just more lawfare—fodder for some future show trial masquerading as a committee hearing, and the inevitable MAGA fundraising designed to accompany it, but never the adjudication of a factual record or actual responsibility. The process has now become so baroque that the Trump faithful are somehow straining to make it appear that Hunter Biden’s conviction is but another sinister turn in the great Democratic lawfare conspiracy. These people are so unfathomably cunning and nefarious that they even send themselves to jail to distract the public from the far larger crimes by which they seize and exercise power!

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It’s strange, though, that the telltale signs of lawfare have apparently proliferated within the operations of a federal judiciary that’s been veering right for decades under the direction of GOP dark money—to say nothing of a Supreme Court that’s a bought-and-paid-for franchise of MAGA governance. Indeed, the Mar-a-Lago prosecution, which throws the absurdist antics of lickspittle Trump stooges like Jordan into the highest possible relief, is now in procedural limbo thanks to the lickspittle Trump stooge presiding over it, Florida federal judge Aileen Cannon.

All the lawfare posturing on the right follows the same perverse logic that holds that the outcome of the 2020 election was a giant Democratic-engineered fraud—except, of course, for the hundreds of federal, state, and local contests that broke in the GOP’s favor. But that’s the thing about impunity; it operates best in conditions of complete epistemic closure. And that’s what the Merrick Garlands of the world can never bring themselves to recognize: The most efficient thing about mob-inspired politics is that it comes pre-weaponized.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the DC Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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