Merrick Garland tells GOP House members, "I will not be intimidated" in face of contempt threat (2024)

Politics

By Robert Legare

/ CBS News

Washington — Weeks after the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance a contempt of Congress resolution against him, Attorney General Merrick Garland appeared before the panel and pushed back against the move as unfounded and serving "no legitimate purpose."

House Republicans on the Judiciary and Oversight Committees last month voted to move forward with contempt resolutions against Garland for defying their request for audio recordings from the federal probe into President Biden's handling of classified records.

The Justice Department said on the eve of the contempt vote that it could not comply with the congressional subpoena for a recording of former special counsel Robert Hur's interview with Mr. Biden because the president asserted executive privilege over the audio. Prosecutors had previously released the deposition transcript and it remains uncertain whether the contempt vote will be brought to the full House for a vote.

The attorney general struck a more defiant tone Tuesday than in past hearings, telling the committee, "I will not be intimidated. And the Justice Department will not be intimidated. We will continue to do our jobs free from political influence. And we will not back down from defending our democracy."

The Justice Department has argued handing over the actual recording of Mr. Biden's interview risked chilling future investigations.

"I view contempt as a serious matter," Garland said Tuesday. "But I will not jeopardize the ability of our prosecutors and agents to do their jobs effectively in future investigations."

The special counsel, who was appointed by Garland to lead the probe, opted not to charge Mr. Biden as part of the investigation, but criticized his handling of the classified records and questioned whether prosecutors would have been able to convince a jury to convict Mr. Biden, given his age and memory.

In response to last month's executive privilege claim, Jim Jordan, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee alleged, "President Biden is asserting executive privilege for the same reason we need the audio recordings — they offer a unique perspective."

The White House and Mr. Biden rejected Hur's characterizations of the president's recall in the interview and argued the transcript offered a more complete representation of the deposition.

Hur is not the only special counsel Garland has appointed in his three years leading the Justice Department, and he is likely not the only independent investigator for whom Garland will have to answer while testifying on Tuesday.

Special counsel Jack Smith has brought two cases against former President Donald Trump — one tied to the 2020 election and the other connected to his handling of classified records. Meanwhile, special counsel David Weiss, a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney from Delaware, is currently in the midst of a trial against the president's son, Hunter Biden. He alleged Hunter Biden illegally purchased a firearm while using drugs.

Both Trump and Hunter Biden have pleaded not guilty, denied wrongdoing and accused the Justice Department of letting politics influence the probes, accusations from both the political right and left that Garland has rebuffed.

"[The contempt threat] is only the most recent in a long line of attacks on the Justice Department's work," the attorney general told lawmakers. "It comes alongside threats to defund particular department investigations, most recently the special counsel's prosecution of the former president."

Throughout the hearing, Garland defended his refusal to comply with the House subpoena for the Hur audio recording and said his department had complied with numerous questions from Congress about the work of his department, including by handing over 92,000 pages of material in all.

Under questioning by Republicans Tuesday, Garland also stood by his decision to appoint the three special counsels and declined to comment on the status of their investigation — even Hur's completed probe — citing Justice Department policy. The attorney general said he expected both Smith and Weiss to testify before Congress at the end of their investigations and revealed he had never met Hunter Biden.

The three years Garland had spent atop the Justice Department have yielded results in what he has said are department priorities, including allegations of war crimes filed in connection with Russia's offensive in Ukraine, antitrust cases brought against corporate giants like Apple and Ticketmaster and efforts to curb violent crime.

Still, Tuesday's testimony from the attorney general and the questions from the panel highlighted the partisan political tensions.

"We are seeing heinous threats of violence being directed at the Justice Department's career public servants," Garland said in his opening statement.

Notably, he also addressedTrump's conviction in New York state court last week on 34 felony counts, calling insinuations from Trump and his supporters that the Justice Department was involved "false."

"That conspiracy theory is an attack on the judicial process itself," Garland said. "These repeated attacks on the Justice Department are unprecedented and unfounded….These attacks have not — and they will not — influence our decision making."

One of the Justice Department's top officials, FBI Director Christopher Wray, appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee hours after the attorney general faced the House committee.

During his most recent appearance on Capitol Hill, Wray warned, "I'd be hard-pressed to think of a time where so many threats to our public safety and national security were so elevated all at once."

He reiterated those concerns Tuesday.

The FBI director told Congress the ongoing conflict in Gaza has prompted an increase in threats against the U.S. to "a whole 'nother level." Antisemitism and hate crimes are also on the rise, he warned.

Wray also ticked through other dangers he said his agency is working to combat, including the fentanyl epidemic, ransomware attacks, and domestic terrorism.

During his testimony earlier this year, Wray, like Garland, warned of "increased threats" against agents and facilities. "Having a badge is dangerous enough. It shouldn't also make you a target," he said.

Since then, Smith, the special counsel investigating Trump, asked a federal judge to limit the former president's public comments after Trump made false claims that FBI agents were "authorized to shoot" him as they executed a court-authorized search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago residence in August 2022. Smith alleged last month that Trump had "grossly distorted these standard practices by mischaracterizing them as a plan to kill him, his family, and U.S. Secret Service agents." His social media posts and campaign emails about the topic, prosecutors wrote, "pose a significant, imminent, and foreseeable danger to the law enforcement agents."

Trump opposed the move and the federal judge overseeing that case has yet to rule on the matter and asked for further briefing in the coming weeks.

In a statement, the FBI said, "The FBI followed standard protocol in this search as we do for all search warrants, which includes a standard policy statement limiting the use of deadly force. No one ordered additional steps to be taken and there was no departure from the norm in this matter."

    In:
  • United States Congress
  • Christopher Wray
  • Donald Trump
  • Merrick Garland

Robert Legare

Robert Legare is a CBS News multiplatform reporter and producer covering the Justice Department, federal courts and investigations. He was previously an associate producer for the "CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell."

Merrick Garland tells GOP House members, "I will not be intimidated" in face of contempt threat (2024)
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