Not a week after being barraged by House Republicans with questions about Fast and Furious and Florida voter registration, Attorney General Eric Holder faced a smaller number of Republicans at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing today.
But the Democratic majority didn’t mean that Holder could sit back and relax. On the panel sits Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who first began needling the feds about the infamous gun-walking operation in January 2011, a month after the slaying of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Holder also received a resignation demand from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), something that didn’t escape the angriest of lawmakers’ lips at the House Judiciary Committee.
Though the attorney general had an ally wielding the gavel.
“When Attorney General Holder took over more than three years ago, he inherited a department that many felt had lost its way and its focus on these core missions. His leadership has helped restore the department,” gushed Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.).
“I also appreciate how under the A.G.’s leadership, the Civil Rights Division has been restored and transformed,” Leahy added. “I applaud the department’s continued efforts to ensure that Americans don’t have their constitutional right to vote taken away by efforts at voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Such barriers recall a dark time in American history and one that we do not want to return to. We will never forget when Americans were attacked by dogs, blasted with water hoses and beaten by mobs simply for attempting to register to vote.”
Grassley dove right into the Fast and Furious questions, saying that the 7,000 pages of documents produced by the Justice Department in comparison to the 140,000 pages gathered for internal review was “just a spit in the ocean.”
“This constant stonewalling is why the House committee is forced to move forward with contempt proceedings,” Grassley said of next week’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee action.
When questioned about what privilege he was summoning to withhold key documents, Holder told Grassley that his department has “reached out” to Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “to try to work our way through these issues.”
“I am prepared to make compromises with regard to the documents that can be made available,” the attorney general said, calling it “an attempt to avoid a constitutional crisis.”
“But I’ve got to have a willing partner,” Holder added. “I’ve extended my hand and I’m waiting to hear back.”
Grassley noted that he asked Holder four months ago to seek permission from the court to make the wiretap applications, a focus of last week’s House hearing, available to the public. “Will you seek the court’s permission to release the affidavits so people can read them and decide for themselves what they mean?” the senator asked. “And if there’s any problems with something sensitive, couldn’t a judge make an independent decision to remove any truly sensitive information before release?”
“Well, that would be a truly extraordinary act,” Holder responded. “…But, as I said, I am willing to consider that as a possibility to try to avoid what I think is an impending constitutional crisis.”
Switching gears to the investigation of intelligence leaks, which some have alleged likely have deep roots within the Obama administration, Grassley questioned the impartiality of the investigation to be conducted by two U.S. attorneys appointed by Holder. “Why did you assign political appointees as opposed to career prosecutors in this investigation?” he asked.
“Well, the people who have to lead these investigations have to be, I think, sufficiently high in the department to be able to command career people, to be able to interact with the investigative agencies,” Holder said.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) noted that the reporting in question cited “participants in situation room meetings,” which should simplify the investigation. “That boils it down to a very small and very specific group of people, all of whom by definition work directly with the president,” Kyl said.
“We have tried more leak cases — brought more leak cases — more leak cases during the course of this administration than any other administration,” Holder said. “I was getting hammered by the left for that only two weeks ago, and now I’m getting hammered by the right for potentially not going after leaks.”
He told Kyl that the two U.S. attorneys have the “moxie” to investigate the leaks.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Holder how serious he would rate the leaks on a scale of one to 10.
“I think they are extremely serious,” the attorney general said.
“Would it be 10, nine, eight, seven?” Graham pressed.
“You know, I’m not sure what a 10 would be, but I’d put him up there,” Holder replied.
“Well, if there’s something worse, I’d hate to see it,” Graham said. “So my point is that I think our concern on this side of the aisle is that there are clearly people around the president leaking stories that involve highly classified information.”
“You’ve got one program called Fast and Furious that’s been an embarrassment to the administration and it’s been like pulling teeth to get information about Fast and Furious, who knew what and when. And when you have programs on the national security front that seem to show the president is a strong leader, you can read about it in the paper,” the senator continued. “So my concern I think is a lot of us believe if there was ever a need for an outside special counsel, it is now.”
Graham then pressed Holder on whether he thought the Valerie Plame and Jack Abramoff cases warranted special counsel.
“I as attorney general am seized with the responsibility of looking at allegations, controversies and making the decision on the basis of what I think is best for a successful investigation and potential prosecutions,” Holder said.
“I think you’re missing something here. I think you’re missing the fact that this is a very big deal,” Graham said. “…Mr. Attorney General, what you’re missing is that the biggest double standard in recent times, that the very people who are in charge of a White House that I believe has compromised national security unlike any time in recent memory, when they were in this body, with investigations no worse, I think — that could not be considered any worse than this — were advocating to the Bush administration appoint somebody new; appoint a special prosecutor that we could all have confidence in, and suggested that the Bush administration was trying to conceal and protect themselves by not doing what they were urging.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted that one of the U.S. attorneys appointed by Holder, Ron Machen, “is a political contributor to President Obama’s campaign, indeed served as a volunteer for Obama for America and assisted in the vetting of potential vice presidential candidates.”
“I am confident that he has the ability, the capacity to investigate this case in a nonpartisan, independent, thorough and aggressive way,” Holder said.
“Well, I would suggest the question that that raises by your answer is whether you have the independence and ability to conduct the investigation, if in fact all of this comes back through you, and given your track record,” Cornyn continued.
“Well, my track record is consistent…” Holder began.
“I didn’t ask you a question,” Cornyn interjected, later chiding the attorney to “not filibuster the time” so that the senator could talk about his record.
The Texas Republican then proceeded to rattle off a litany of Holder sins, ranging from Fast and Furious stonewalling to refusing to appoint a special counsel to probe the intelligence leaks and combatting states’ voter ID laws.
“In short, you’ve violated the public trust, in my view, by failing and refusing to perform the duties of your office,” Cornyn said. “So, Mr. Attorney General, it’s more sorrow than — than regret — than anger that I would say that you leave me no alternative but to join those that call upon you to resign your office.”
Leahy said that Cornyn had accused Holder of perjury, so the attorney general had the right to respond.
“Yeah, with all due respect, senator, there is so much that’s factually wrong with the premises that you started your statement with, you know, it’s almost breathtaking in its inaccuracy, so I — but I will simply leave it at that,” Holder said. “You know, we want to talk about Fast and Furious. This is, I guess, what, the ninth time? …If you want to talk about Fast and Furious, I’m the attorney general that put an end to the misguided tactics that were used in Fast and Furious.”
“I don’t have any intention of resigning. I heard the White House press officer say yesterday that the president has absolute confidence in me. I don’t have any reason to believe that that, in fact, is not — is not the case,” Holder added.
Holder claimed during the hearing that his drive against voter ID laws is “not advocating for party” but “principle.”
Later, Cornyn reiterated his call for Holder’s resignation in a lengthy address on the Senate floor, calling the attorney general’s tactics “nothing short of misleading and obstructionist.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked Holder about his repeated use of “constitutional crisis” in connection with revealing Fast and Furious documents.
“You know, I think — I think about — maybe ‘constitutional conflict’ would be a little better,” Holder said.