Attorney General Eric Holder faced lawmakers this afternoon in what turned into a referendum on his tenure and the scandals facing the Obama administration, including the revelation earlier this week that the Justice Department had seized telephone records from the Associated Press as part of a national security leak investigation.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee peppered Holder with questions about everything from the Justice Department’s decision to investigate the IRS and the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi to whether FBI agents fumbled an interview Tamerlan Tsarnaev prior to the Boston Marathon bombing.
The hearing, which lasted more than four hours, also repeatedly touched on the nomination of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez to head the Labor Department. Led by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrel Issa (R-Calif.), Republicans on the committee focused on their ongoing criticism of Perez’s involvement in a disputed deal with the city of St. Paul, Minn.
After Issa played a DOJ recording of a voicemail that Perez left for a city official, which he claimed demonstrated that the Assistant Attorney General agreed not to intervene in the False Claims Act lawsuit against St. Paul if the city withdrew a housing discrimination case, Magner v. Gallagher, before the Supreme Court.
“Is it OK to trade a case you don’t want going to the Supreme Court for a dollar damage case?” Issa asked.
The two then engaged in a back-and-forth, cutting each other off before either could finish asking or answering a question. After trying and failing to answer a final question, Holder called Issa’s actions “inappropriate” and “too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It’s unacceptable, and it’s shameful.”
Democrats, meanwhile, gave the Attorney General frequent opportunities to defend the character of his Civil Rights Division chief. Holder praised Perez as “outstanding,” and called him “the conscience” of the department.
The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is scheduled to vote on the nomination tomorrow morning.
Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans hammered the Attorney General on the Justice Department’s decision to subpoena the cellular, office and home telephone records of AP reporters in New York, Washington, and Hartford, Conn., apparently as part of a probe into the leak of news about a foiled terrorism plot in Yemen.
Again and again, Holder said he could not comment on details of the investigation because he had recused himself.
“I don’t have a factual basis to answer the questions you have asked because I was recused,” Holder said.
The Attorney General later pledged an after-action review of the AP subpoena process. “Some kind of after-action analysis will be appropriate, and I will engage in such analysis after the case is done and I can be involved with it.”
In answering questions about DOJ’s investigation into allegations that the IRS targeted conservative groups, Holder promised Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that the probe would extend beyond the Cincinnati office, which looks at applications for tax-exempt status.
“The facts will take us wherever they take us,” he said.
On Benghazi, the Attorney General said the FBI is wrapping up its investigation into who was responsible for the attack.
“We will be prepared shortly I think to reveal all that we have done,” Holder said.
One of the sharpest exchanges during a relatively calm couple of hours came when Rep. Paul Labrador (R-Idaho) pressed the Attorney General to explain his comment earlier this year that he had no respect for the members of Congress who voted last June to hold him in contempt for refusing to turn over documents tied to the botched Fast and Furious gun-running sting. He later told ABC News that the vote “didn’t have that huge an impact” on him since he didn’t “have respect for the people who voted in that way.”
“The process that you all went through seemed inconsistent with both prior practice and not taking into account the good faith attempts that we were making to try to share the information that was sought,” Holder said today.
The Attorney General took issue with the Idaho lawmaker’s remark that others, including IRS agents, were “emboldened” to “think that they could also go after conservative groups.”
“I’m not the cause of people doing things that might be illegal,” Holder said.
Other GOP members of the committee, including Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), made similar insinuations that somehow the IRS behavior was emblematic of the Obama administration as a whole.
“I’m a little concerned you marked [Rep. Ted Poe] down as not a fan of government. I hope he has his taxes in order,” Farenthold said.
Meanwhile, Holder sought to clarify much maligned remarks he made before a Senate hearing in March that critics in Congress and elsewhere have denounced as Justice’s justification for a “too big to jail” approach toward major financial institutions.
“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,” Holder told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. “And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.”
Today, he said he wanted to set the record straight on his “misconstrued” comment.
“Let me be very, very, very clear. Banks are not too big to jail,” he said. “If we find a bank or a financial institution that has done something wrong, if we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, those cases will be brought.”
Additionally, Holder also took questions about the sequester’s impact on the department. In particular, Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia of Florida wanted to know how budget cuts would impact federal law enforcement’s role in immigration reform.
Holder said the immigration bill currently being debated in Congress contains provisions for adding new immigration judges. He also said the president’s FY14 budget asks to bring on additional immigration judge to handle the growing docket.
But he also said continued sequestration would have a harmful effect on the department’s continued successes at every level.
“You will see lower numbers out of the Justice Department, and in two or three years an Attorney General will be criticized for that. And it will be because there are fewer [agents],” Holder said.