Attorney General Eric Holder tangled with a handful of Republicans over Operation Fast and Furious and Florida voter rolls at a hotly anticipated House Judiciary Committee hearing today.
Holder plowed through four hours of testimony before the panel, peppering his responses to lawmakers’ queries with multiple “I don’t knows” and falling similarly short in other responses.
The attorney general, for example, couldn’t remember offhand when Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed by a Fast and Furious gun.
“I think Agent Terry was killed on December 10th or 14th, I believe, of December,” Holder said in response to Chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) line of questioning. Terry was shot on Dec. 14, 2010, and died on Dec. 15.
Smith went into the hearing having released an April report detailing what he saw as multiple failings of Holder’s tenure, from Fast and Furious to refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
“Neglecting to enforce or defend the laws enacted by Congress is another violation of the administration’s constitutional obligation to the American people,” Smith said. “Under this president, the Justice Department has engaged in a pattern of selective enforcement of the law in order to advance its own partisan agenda.”
“The administration’s actions aren’t just wrong. They are arrogant, undemocratic, and an insult to the rule of law,” Smith added.
Like a boxer winding up for a prize fight, the anticipation was thick for Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary panel, to confront Holder, who was before the committee for his regular Justice Department oversight appearance.
Two days ago, Issa fired off a biting letter to Holder, rebuking him for misleading congressional investigators even as six wiretap applications in the gun-walking scandal showed “shocking” involvement by Justice officials.
“I’ve sent you a number of letters. Senator Grassley sent you a number of letters. You mentioned in your opening statement the speaker’s letter. The speaker did not limit the scope of the subpoenas you’re under an obligation to respond to. He simply asked you for response to two key areas. He did not revoke any subpoenas. However, you implied that we were working together, when, in fact, since May 18, nothing — nothing has come from your department, not one shred of paper,” Issa began with Holder today.
“I want to ask you, first of all today, have you and your attorneys produced internally the materials responsive to the subpoenas?”
“We believe that we have responded to the subpoenas…” Holder began.
“No, Mr. Attorney General, you’re not a good witness. A good witness answers the question asked,” Issa interrupted. “…Have you taken the time to look up our subpoena and find out what material you have responsive to it, or have you simply invented a privilege that doesn’t exist?'”
“We’ve looked at 240 custodians. We have processed millions of electronic and viewed over 140,000 documents and produced to you about 7,600,” Holder said.
“Look, I don’t want to hear about the 7,600,” Issa retorted, at which point Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) interjected with a parliamentary inquiry to the chairman, prompting Issa to fire “the lady is out of order” in her direction.
“Isn’t it true, Mr. Attorney General, that you have not produced a log of materials withheld, even though our investigators have asked for it?” Issa continued.
“I know that — I’m not sure about that. I know that the…” Holder began.
“OK, I’m sure you didn’t, so let’s move on.”
Issa presented the wiretap applications “which we did not subpoena but which were given to us by a furious group of whistleblowers that are tired of your stonewalling” that indicate administration officials were aware of Fast and Furious tactics.
“I have read them, and I disagree with the conclusion you’ve just reached,” Holder said.
Over a line of questioning regarding departmental responsibility for reviewing the wiretap applications, Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) broke in to ask for regular order.
“I’m in the middle of a question,” Issa said.
“He hasn’t asked the question,” Conyers protested to the chairman.
“I’m halfway through it, if you’ll quit interrupting,” Issa said, trying to proceed as the leading Democrat on the panel kept interjecting.
“I can say that what has happened in connection with Fast and Furious was done in the same way as wiretap applications were done under the previous administration in Wide Receiver,” Holder said, referring to a 2006 ATF gun-walking operation.
Before proceeding to the next lawmaker, Conyers interjected again to ask Smith to chide the panel for being too rough with Holder.
“I think that the previous questioning was the first note of hostility and interruption of the witness that I think has been uncharacteristic of what we’ve been doing here so far today,” Conyers said. “And I’d like to ask the chair to admonish all the witnesses from here on out to please try to — all the members from here on out to please allow the witness to finish his answers.”
“You know, I appreciate that there was hostility between the attorney general and myself,” Issa responded. “I would hope that the ranking member would understand that in fact most of it was produced by the fact that I have a great many questions and a relatively little period of time in which to get answers and that, for a year and a half, my committee, through subpoenas and interrogatories, has been attempting to get answers for which this witness has basically said he asserts a privilege.”
“With all due respect to Chairman Issa, he says there’s hostility between us,” Holder said. “I don’t feel that. …I’m not feeling hostile at all. I’m pretty calm. I’m OK.”
But Issa was far from the only Republican to put Holder on the spot over the gun-walking operation, prompting a flurry of requests from Jackson Lee about whether talking about the wiretap applications was proper parliamentary procedure and entering so many documents into the record that Issa charged that the other side should be allowed to prepare and submit their own evidence as well.
“It doesn’t matter if you appear at Congress seven times or 70 times, if when you’re asked you say I don’t know to the questions that are most pertinent,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). “It doesn’t matter if you supply 7,000 pages or documents or 700,000 pages, if they’re not the proper papers to answer key questions.”
Forbes questioned Holder about his interactions with President Obama’s campaign team regarding messaging or hiring decisions.
Saying he hadn’t had any such communications with the campaign, Holder said that he and “close friend” campaign strategist David Axelrod “talked about ways in which we might improve the ability of the Justice Department to respond to political attacks that were coming my way.”
“I mean, there’s a political dimension to the job that I have as attorney general,” Holder continued. “I mean, the reality is that I don’t sit up in an ivory tower and just do law enforcement. I am the subject of attacks. I’m a person who is seen by some as pretty controversial. And there are times, or at least there was that time when I was looking for some help in that regard.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former state district judge, seized on this admonition, recounting the tough decisions he made from the bench “because it was the fair and just thing.” When hearing Holder talk of the political aspect, Gohmert said, “it offends me beyond belief.”
“Your job is justice, Mr. Attorney General,” he said. “It’s justice across the board.”
Holder protested that his job includes political aspects such as trying to “advance legislation that I think is appropriate” and battling defunding pushes on the Hill — and, he acknowledged, coordinating messaging on stories such as Fast and Furious.
When another judge and Texas Republican, Rep. Ted Poe, got his crack at Holder, the attorney general said he didn’t know how many guns from Fast and Furious had been recovered.
When Poe asked how many Mexicans had been killed as a result of the operation, Holder responded, “I don’t know, but I would think that there have been some.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), saying that he didn’t believe the attorney general should be espousing any political ideology, asked Holder if he believed that a question about which senior officials knew about the gun-walking operation could be in “good faith” instead of politically motivated.
“Sure,” Holder responded. “Do you think John Ashcroft was a conservative?”
“I’m not going to ignore reality and say that all the attacks against me are non-political in nature,” the attorney general said.
“If you think that you are being singled out because of ideology or race [in] Fast and Furious, you are sorely mistaken,” Gowdy said.
Holder faced nearly as many questions about Florida’s effort to examine its voter rolls to purge those not eligible to cast ballots, from Republicans who opposed the Justice Department’s intervention to Democrats who pushed any move to stop Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) expressed his “disappointment that some of my colleagues are spending so much time advancing the notion that we should be disqualifying people from exercising the most basic right that they have in our democracy, the right to vote.”
“The problem is simply this,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.). “And that is, Florida is trying to purge its voter registration rolls of noncitizens, including illegal immigrants, people who are clearly not eligible to vote. And the Department of Homeland Security has had a nine-month delay in giving the national voter registration logs to the state.”
Holder countered that Florida’s request still clashed with the Voter Registration Act rule of not purging voter rolls within 90 days of an election, then said that the DHS database was flawed and “could result in the exclusion of people from voting who are native-born Americans.”
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) took Holder to task on whether asking for photo ID violated constitutional rights.
“If I were lucky enough to be invited down to meet you or see you at your office at the Justice Department, wouldn’t I have to show a government issued photo ID to get in to see you?” Lungren asked.
“You might,” Holder responded.
To go into a federal courthouse? “That’s not been my experience… I don’t know.”
To get on a plane? “That one, yes. To get on a plane, you’ve got to have a photo ID.”
“So, is your Justice Department investigating the discriminatory effect of those laws with respect to someone’s constitutional right to travel? Or constitutional right to visit you? I mean, the constitution doesn’t say petition the government for a redress of grievances only goes to some people,” Lungren continued. “I mean, if I’ve got a complaint with the Justice Department and want to come to the Justice Department, are you inhibiting me, effecting my constitutional right by requiring me to show a government issued photo ID?”
Holder responded that the most important right we have, what “distinguishes this country and makes it exceptional as compared to other nations,” is the right to vote.
“And there are people who cheat about voting when they don’t have a right to vote,” Lungren said.
“We do not see that to the proportions that people have said in an attempt to try to justify these photo ID laws,” Holder responded.