Holder Hearing Ends with Some Fireworks

The confirmation hearing for Eric Holder, the attorney general nominee, did not live up to expectations. In advance of the hearing, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) (in a floor speech and public statements) and a raft of news reports set out the details of Holder's involvement in controversial Clinton-era pardons and identified the main issue for his confirmation: could he be relied upon to resist political pressure and act with independence as the country's chief law enforcement officer? But at the hearing it soon became evident that the Republicans did not have the stomach for a full-blown fight.

When the hearing opened on Thursday, Holder anticipated their arguments at the onset of the hearings and began with an apology for his involvement in the Marc Rich scandal, dubbing it "the most searing experience I've ever had as a lawyer." The New York Times recounted Holder's effort to take the wind out of the Republicans' sails:

"As I indicated in my opening statement, my conduct and my actions in the Rich matter is a place where I made mistakes. ... I've accepted the responsibility of making those mistakes. I never tried to hide; I never tried to blame anybody else."

"I should have made sure everybody who was a prosecutor in that case was informed, an assumption that turned out not to be true."

He concluded by saying that as "perverse as this might sound," he would be a better attorney general because of the Rich pardon.  

Senator Specter grilled him on his pardon recommendation, eliciting a response that he had offered his "neutral, leaning favorable" recommendation for Rich without knowing much at all about the fugitive financier, who was on the FBI's top ten wanted list. Not even the ever-friendly MSNBC commentators were buying that one. NBC Washington Bureau Chief Mark Whitaker noted:

You know, that strains credibility a little bit, I've got to say. Because Marc Rich, there's talk about him being on the top ten list. Pete Williams reminded us this morning that he was on the top ten list. But this was a well-known case. And it was also well known that his wife Denise Rich had been a big supporter and fund-raiser for Bill Clinton. So the idea this was sort of just a tax fraud case, nobody knew that he was this international arms dealer, that, I think is a little bit hard to believe.

After gentle questioning from friendly Democrats the inquisition heated up again. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wanted to know about his pardon recommendations for 16 unrepentant FALN terrorists. On this Holder gave less ground, going so far to call the pardon decision a "reasonable one."