Hot Seat

Eric Holder on the Skewer: The Lowest Points of His Capitol Hill Grilling

Eleanor Clift on what the attorney general said about Benghazi, the AP, and the IRS.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

It was a little like listening to right-wing radio, as one Republican member after another assailed Attorney General Eric Holder for the intrusion of big government into American life, a motivating principle among conservatives that the Obama administration has, with its handling of several issues, unwittingly given new life. A trio of scandals, a contentious nomination, and the generalized hostility that exists between the Republican-led Congress and the attorney general produced several contentious exchanges during Holder’s four hours of testimony Wednesday before the House Judiciary committee.

Pressed repeatedly for more information about the Justice Department’s seizing of journalists’ phone records and also about the newly launched Justice probe of the IRS, Holder declined to answer most questions with any specificity because both matters are the subject of ongoing criminal investigations. By the time Ohio Republican Jim Jordan got his five minutes to question Holder, some two hours into the marathon hearing, the congressman said he was keeping a tally on how many times the AG said he couldn’t answer. He wanted Holder’s assurance that the Justice Department investigation into the IRS wouldn’t interfere with Congress’s hearing next week into the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking a federal tax exemption.

Lois Lerner lied to me; she lied to our committee staff,” Jordan exclaimed, naming the IRS official who last week publicly revealed the politically charged profiling the IRS was using. “Is she just going to throw up her hands and say—like the attorney general—‘this is a criminal investigation, I can’t comment?”” Holder responded that his responsibility is to investigate violations of the law, and he would work with Congress, when Jordan interjected, “This is the big one! … and let’s be frank, you don’t have that much credibility. Lots of folks on this panel … have called for your resignation, and the House (last year) voted to hold you in contempt.”

“Your characterization of her testimony in and of itself—forget about our investigation,” Holder stammered, telling Jordan that on the basis of what he just said he could put Lerner in the very situation he wants to avoid, and that she would be well within her rights to say, “On the basis of what you’ve said, you think I’ve already lied.”

It’s clear that Republicans on the committee do not subscribe to the notion that you get more flies with honey. There was no attempt to sweet-talk Holder, and Lerner, next week’s star witness, is forewarned. The frequent breakdowns in civility had Democrats on the panel and some Republicans, too, shouting “regular order” to shut down questioners who exceeded their time or weren’t giving Holder a chance to respond. In the final minutes of the hearing after a sharp exchange with Georgia Republican Doug Collins, Holder said more in sorrow than anger, “I didn’t come here because I wanted to,” but because he respects the oversight role of the Congress. “I don’t think I’ve been always treated with respect,” he said. “You may not like me, but I am the attorney general.”

The Republicans did draw blood in one area, and that is the timeline of when Holder recused himself from the investigation into who leaked national-security information that led to the secret subpoena of the AP’s phone records. He couldn’t remember when he recused himself, or even exactly how he did it, only that it was before the subpoena was issued, and that a staff search revealed nothing in writing. Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus nailed it when he said, “Do you think it would be a best practice to memorialize that recusal in writing?” By then, the subject had come up several times, and Holder said that just thinking about it through the hearing, his critics were right.

He also seemed a little uncomfortable having to punt on so many questions related to an issue that had touched a nerve not only on Capitol Hill but throughout the news media. Under questioning from Democrat Zoe Lofgren, Holder said that given the attention the AP case had generated, “I pledge to the American people an after-action analysis.” Lofgren was as unsparing toward Holder as the Republicans on the issue of press freedom, saying, “It seems to me the actions of the department have impaired the First Amendment—confidential sources are now chilled in their relationship with the press.”

She realized he couldn’t answer on the specifics of the case, but said she couldn’t understand why the AP was not notified their phone records had been compromised. Under the law, the Justice Department would be justified in a secret subpoena if there was reason to believe the evidence might disappear—but the phone records were not at risk of disappearing, Lofgren said. “It seems to me the danger done to a free press is substantial unless some corrective action is taken. This is a very serious matter that affects all of us regardless of party affiliation.”

At the urging of the White House, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer will reintroduce a media shield law that failed in previous Congresses. Given the events of the last week, lawmakers in both parties are ready to support the legislation.

Congressman Darrell Issa had the distinction of the lawmaker who most got under Holder’s skin. His line of questioning focused on former deputy attorney general Tom Perez, Obama’s nominee for labor secretary. Pressing Holder on why he won’t release more of Perez’s personal emails, Holder pushed back, calling Issa’s hammering style “consistent with the way you conduct yourself in Congress—it’s unacceptable and it’s shameful.”

The lawmakers picked up on the theme that has captured Washington in its depiction of the Obama administration, that the fault always is always elsewhere. “There’s no assumption of responsibility in the Justice Department,” Republican Jim Sensenbrenner said, suggesting Holder visit the Truman Library and check out the sign Harry Truman kept on his desk: “The buck stops here.”

The low point of the hearing was probably when Texas Republican Louie Gohmert took offense when Holder challenged his assertion that the FBI had not done its job in investigating the Boston Marathon bombers after getting tipped off by the Russians that the older Tsarnaev brother had been radicalized. Gohmert attributed it to “political correctness,” saying the FBI goes after Christian groups but it’s “hands off on possibly offending” Tsarnaev because they’re concerned about profiling. It turned into a shouting match with Gohmert doing all the shouting and Holder trying to respond amidst cries of “regular order” from the other lawmakers. Holder defended the FBI, basically told Gohmert he didn’t know what he was talking about, which Gohmert took as a challenge to his character and his integrity. “You can’t know what I know,” Holder said, words that pretty much sum up his four hours in the hot seat.