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Biden blocks the release of recordings of his classified documents interview


President Biden took the rare step of asserting executive privilege today to block the release of recordings of his interview with a prosecutor. It is a tricky moment for the president. Republican lawmakers have been digging into the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute him for mishandling classified documents, and two Republican-led committees are threatening to hold the attorney general in contempt over the tapes. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Attorney General Merrick Garland says the Justice Department has gone out of its way to meet demands from Congress.


MERRICK GARLAND: We have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the committees get responses to their legitimate requests. But this is not one.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department already gave Congress written transcripts and made the prosecutor's full report public, including a line where he described President Biden as a well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory. In brief remarks outside his office, the attorney general said handing over the Biden tapes would hurt future investigations of people inside or close to the White House.


GARLAND: That's what we're doing here. We're protecting our ability to continue to do high-profile and sensitive investigations, and we will continue to do that.

JOHNSON: House Judiciary Committee chairman Jim Jordan rejected that reasoning.


JIM JORDAN: The recordings are necessary. The transcripts alone are not sufficient evidence of the state of the president's memory.

JOHNSON: Same for House Oversight chairman James Comer, who said his panel would move ahead to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress. The full U.S. House of Representatives would have to vote for a contempt finding to stick. But by asserting executive privilege, the White House has given the attorney general a legal shield from prosecution, not that it was likely a Biden U.S. attorney would have taken that step anyway.

Mark Rozell is a political scientist at George Mason University. He wrote a book about executive privilege. Rozell says, this is an unusual claim of privilege because the transcripts of the Biden interview are already in the public domain.

MARK ROZELL: I cannot avoid the belief that somehow this has more to do with politics than constitutional law and protecting the integrity of the constitutional powers of the presidency.

JOHNSON: Invoking the privilege now may be more about preventing the audio from appearing in campaign ads, he says.

ROZELL: Quite frankly, the White House has every reason to be concerned about the audio being released because it could be chopped up and used in various ways in a political campaign in an election year to make the president look and sound bad.

JOHNSON: At the Justice Department, Merrick Garland cast the contempt fight as part of a broader partisan campaign to define federal agents and prosecutors investigating former President Donald Trump.


GARLAND: Look, the only thing I can do is continue to do the right thing. I will protect this building and its people.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.