U.S. President Joe Biden has formally asserted executive privilege over the audio recordings of his interview with special counsel Robert Hur, effectively shielding Attorney General Merrick Garland from criminal exposure as House Republicans move toward holding him in contempt of Congress. The Justice Department informed House Republicans of the decision on Thursday, citing "extraordinary" cooperation and "good faith" efforts to provide relevant materials from Hur's investigation into Biden's handling of classified documents while out of office.

Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte argued in a letter that disclosing the audio would set an untenable precedent, potentially discouraging high-profile figures under criminal scrutiny from cooperating with the government in the future. "The Attorney General must draw a line that safeguards the Department from improper political influence and protects our principles, our law enforcement work, and the people who carry out that work independently, without fear or favor," Uriarte wrote.

The Justice Department had previously provided a transcript of Biden's interview to House Republicans but maintained that the audio would not add further value to their investigation. Uriarte also pointed to longstanding DOJ policy, held by administrations of both parties, that an official who asserts the President's claim of executive privilege cannot be prosecuted for criminal contempt of Congress.

In rare public comments, Attorney General Merrick Garland accused House Republicans of mounting a series of "unprecedented" and "unfounded" attacks on the Justice Department, defending Biden's decision to assert executive privilege. "We have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the committees get responses to their legitimate requests, but this is not one," Garland said. "To the contrary, this is one that would harm or ability in the future to successfully pursue sensitive investigations."

Garland argued that the efforts by House Republicans to hold him in contempt were part of a broader pattern of attacks that has resulted in widespread distrust and threats against the Justice Department. "There have been a series of unprecedented and frankly, unfounded attacks on the Justice Department," Garland said. "This effort to use contempt as an as a method of obtaining our sensitive law enforcement files is just the most recent. The effort to threaten to defund our investigations and the way in which there are contributions to an atmosphere that puts our agents and prosecutors at risk -- these are wrong."

House Republicans have been critical of Biden's decision to assert executive privilege, with House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer claiming in a statement that "it's a five alarm fire at the White House" and that it "changes nothing." Comer argued that Biden and his advisors fear releasing the audio recordings because they would "reaffirm to the American people that President Biden's mental state is in decline."

House Speaker Mike Johnson also weighed in, suggesting that the audio recordings would confirm what special counsel Hur had found and would likely cause alarm among the American people. "The American people will not be able to hear why prosecutors felt the president of the United States was in special counsel Robert Hur's words, a quote elderly man with a poor memory and thus shouldn't be charged," Johnson said.

White House Counsel Ed Siskel wrote a letter to Comer and House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, explaining the decision to assert executive privilege over the recordings. Siskel argued that Biden has a responsibility to protect the executive branch's law enforcement agencies from "undue partisan interference" and accused House Republicans of seeking to "chop up, distort, and use [the recordings] for partisan political purposes."

The assertion of executive privilege comes after Hur's yearlong probe into Biden's handling of classified documents ended with no criminal charges being recommended, citing insufficient evidence to support a conviction. However, the 388-page report Hur released created a political firestorm, as the special counsel described Biden as someone who could appeal to a jury as an "elderly man with a poor memory."