House GOP Escalates War on Justice Dept. as Members Flock to Trump Trial

Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) listens as former president Donald Trump speaks to the media outside a New York court on Thursday.

The Republican chairs of the powerful House Judiciary and Oversight committees slammed the Biden administration this week, accusing the president and Attorney General Merrick Garland of politicizing the justice system.

But as Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and James Comer (R-Ky.) pilloried the White House and the Justice Department, their committees were hobbled by attendance problems: At least five members were in New York on Thursday morning, standing behind former president Donald Trump at his criminal trial and inserting themselves, and their political views, into the same justice system the two chairmen claimed to be defending from politicization.

“This is a corrupt judge, these are corrupted witnesses, this is a corrupt prosecution that belies any sense of the facts or the law,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters outside the courthouse.

House Republicans have long stood on the front lines of Trump’s effort to counter the 88 charges he faces across four criminal cases – state cases in New York and Georgia and federal cases in Florida and Washington – as he seeks to win the presidency again. GOP-led congressional committees have launched counter-probes of investigations and prosecutors targeting Trump, degrading the guardrails between politics and the criminal justice system.

So many Republican members were expected to be absent from the planned House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday that Comer postponed it. The hearing, originally scheduled for 11 a.m., was pushed to 8 p.m. Committee members Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Michael Cloud (R-Tex.) and Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) were among Trump’s surrogates in Manhattan on Thursday morning.

The Judiciary Committee, missing Gaetz and Biggs, pushed ahead with the first of two markups of contempt resolutions against Attorney General Merrick Garland. House Republicans have blamed Garland for their stalled impeachment inquiry into Biden, arguing that the attorney general has impeded their investigation by withholding audio and video recordings made during a special counsel investigation into Biden’s handling of classified documents.

The band of pro-Trump lawmakers held an impromptu news conference on the steps of the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, where they criticized New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan and other participants in the proceedings.

Trump himself has been barred from attacking the fairness of the proceedings under a gag order imposed by Merchan. The prosecutors in the trial and Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who brought the case against Trump, have generally not commented publicly on the charges outside of the courtroom and their official filings, even as Trump has targeted them with coarse personal attacks.

The White House, which has already produced transcripts of those interviews, has asserted executive privilege over the recordings, arguing that releasing them could endanger future investigations and accusing Republicans of seeking them for nakedly political reasons.

“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,” Edward N. Siskel, counsel to the president, wrote in a letter to Comer. “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.”

Former congressman Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a former prosecutor and member of the Judiciary Committee who retired from Congress in March, said Wednesday that his former GOP colleagues want the recordings for political reasons. “They released the transcript,” Buck told CNN. “They have the information. They’re just looking for something for political purposes.”

During a brief appearance before reporters on Thursday morning, Garland said he had asked Biden to exert executive privilege over the recordings because he was worried that fulfilling Republicans’ request would discourage witnesses in future investigations from cooperating with the Justice Department. He decried what he characterized as the House GOP’s dangerous attacks on Justice Department investigators and prosecutors.

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

The Justice Department has argued that publicly releasing the tapes of Biden could chill witness cooperation in the future and have dire consequences for voluntary cooperation in high-profile criminal investigations going forward.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee accused Republicans during the hearing of using the contempt proceedings against Garland to revive their collapsed impeachment inquiry against Biden.

“This committee is trying to drag it out of the garbage can and try to trick the American people that this is part of the impeachment inquiry,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), calling the push to obtain the audio and video recordings of the president an “expedition to make Biden look bad.”