The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23-17 along party lines to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress today, pushing forward with the action even after the White House slapped an 11th-hour executive privilege on subpoenaed documents still sought in the Operation Fast and Furious investigation.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said an official communication from President Obama had not been received by Congress at the time of this morning’s meeting, but the committee had received a multi-page letter from Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole informing them of the action just minutes before the hearing, which was scheduled earlier this month.
“We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee’s concerns and to accommodate the Committee’s legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious,” Cole wrote. “Although we are deeply disappointed that the Committee appears intent on proceeding with a contempt vote, the Department remains willing to work with the Committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues.”
“Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt,” Issa said in the hearing’s opening, noting that Holder was offered an accommodation to produce the requested documents on the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal. “As late as last night his offer was only to give us a briefing and then only if we ended the investigation.”
“This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” the chairman said of the executive privilege.
“Members on both side of the dais have repeatedly said we owe it to the Terry family to get to the truth.”
Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who conferred with an aide during Issa’s opening statement, read from part of the document after noting that “we need to study this and make sure we understand what the president is asserting here.”
Among the reasons in the document was “such compelled disclosure would be inconsistent with the separation of powers in the Constitution.”
Cummings said that Holder didn’t ask the committee to end its investigation, but all he requested in return was “ending this contempt fight.”
“I heard what he said, it was very clear. It was a fair and reasonable offer,” Cummings said, then launching into an attack on Issa for “partisan and highly inflammatory personal attacks” on Holder.
“For the past year, you’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard,” he said. “Last night you flatly rejected the attorney general’s offer. Instead you rushed to a prearranged press conference to declare the meeting a failure.”
“Mr. Chairman, it did not have to be this way,” Cummings added. “The position and prestige of this committee has been diminished.”
Other Democrats on the committee likewise lashed out at Issa for the contempt report and citation hearing. “I am horrified that you are going forward with this contempt charge when the president of the United States and administration have invoked executive privilege,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). “…I am offended personally by your calling the attorney general a liar.”
“I want to apologize to the American people for yet another show of ‘gotcha’ politics in this body,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
“With sensational charges, reckless accusations and by exploiting a tragedy, the majority tried to create the scandal they were looking for,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “When one starts out with the presumption of guilt, of a cover-up – as the Majority did when they began this investigation – it’s extremely difficult to admit when one is proven wrong.”
But despite protestations that the assertion of executive privilege warranted postponing today’s vote, it was the Republican majority that backed the chairman and pushed the contempt citation through.
“I want to compliment our chairman for being so patient,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). “There’s no question in anybody’s mind that’s been involved in this investigation that the attorney general has been stonewalling this committee.”
“The president’s assertion of executive privilege creates even more questions,” Burton added.
“There is no one person who is above the law,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who called on his colleagues to have the “guts” to vote in favor and send it to the floor for further debate. “This is not about Eric Holder. … Nobody wants to put a conclusion to this more than Chairman Issa.”
“I’m going resist the temptation to contrast Sen. Obama’s position on executive privilege with President Obama’s position on executive privilege,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). “…What in the world is he exerting executive privilege for? He’s either part of it or he’s not.”
“This is a sad day,” he added. “But it is a necessary day.”
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) called for Holder’s resignation. “He knows nothing, he says nothing, and he seeks for nothing,” Labrador said. “Never in my life have I met a man so unconcerned with the truth.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced a failed amendment that called on the committee to postpone action on contempt until an investigation is done into the gun-walking operation that occurred during the Bush administration, to which many of documents Holder has handed over have referred.
Cummings supported the amendment, saying that while others were trying to discern whether Holder has been hiding something, “I don’t think he’s hiding a damn thing.”
“I gotta say, Mr. Chairman, sitting with you in a meeting can be rough,” the ranking member said about the previous night’s meeting with Holder.
“This amendment smacks of ‘it’s Bush’s fault’,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), quipping that if the committee wants to go back to the Bush years the Obama administration would be more than willing to turn over everything in regard to that operation.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), calling it an “Olympic investigation,” wanted to include a paragraph at the end of the contempt report noting that the committee would report how much the investigation cost to the taxpayers, complaining that the panel was spending “an overwhelming amount of time on this one issue.” That also didn’t pass.
“Watergate cost a lot of money,” Issa said. “…Brian Terry’s family deserves every penny we have spent.”
A letter from Terry’s family was brought forth at the committee during the debate on the amendments, saying that “the documents sought should be produced and turned over to the committee” and stressing that Holder’s stonewalling “serves to compound this tragedy.”
Obama’s executive privilege twist reverberated beyond the Oversight Committee room.
“The Attorney General and now the President have refused to turn over documents to investigators and failed to hold anyone accountable for his department’s mishandling of Fast and Furious, which lead to the death of Brian Terry,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Today’s vote could have been avoided, but the Attorney General and President Obama’s insistence on stonewalling left no other option.”
One of the quickest in the upper chamber to respond, though, was Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who sent the first inquiry to the ATF on Operation Fast and Furious shortly after Agent Brian Terry’s December 2010 death.
“How can the President assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement?” Grassley said in a statement. “How can the President exert executive privilege over documents he’s supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?”