Members of the House Judiciary Committee had a number of potentially embarrassing political controversies involving the Obama administration to choose from when Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. came to testify on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
They hit them all: The revelations the U.S. Department of Justice seized Associated Press telephone records without notifying the news agency; the Internal Revenue Service’s apparent political targeting of tax-exempt applications; and the attacks on the U.S. Diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed.
They even questioned Holder about his actions during the investigation of former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus’s affair and "Fast and Furious"—the botched gun trafficking investigation at the center of the House vote last year to find Holder in contempt of Congress.
The result was a four-hour marathon oversight hearing, with Holder in the hot seat. At times, the questioning returned to the combative back-and-forth between Holder and House Republicans that has characterized similar hearings for years.
In the end, Holder didn’t break much new ground. While contentious, it was mild compared to the inflammatory confrontations last year in which lawmakers called for his resignation. Even with all the ammunition, there really weren’t any major fireworks.
During one exchange about another controversy, this one surrounding Civil Rights Division head Tom Perez and a whistleblower settlement, Holder told Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) that the congressman’s conduct was "unacceptable and shameful." At another point, Holder refused to stop talking over Representative Louis Gohmert (R-Texas).
The big topic: the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records, a decision Holder said—for the second day in a row—that he had no part in. Holder said that he recused himself from authorizing subpoenas targeting reporter and editor toll records because the FBI had questioned him as the bureau looked into the possible unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Holder told committee members that he didn’t know whether he put the recusal in writing.
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) told Holder that the explanation was just another way the Justice Department seemed to be avoiding responsibility.
"We don’t know where the buck stops," Sensenbrenner said. "I think this committee has been frustrated…that there doesn’t seem to be any acceptance of responsibility in the Justice Department for things that have gone wrong."
Republicans also criticized the recusal because the federal code requires Holder to put the recusal in writing, and not doing so gives political cover to Holder and the White House. "Are you saying there’s no paper trail here when you recused yourself and for what reason?" Representative Tom Marino (R-Pa.) asked the attorney general.
Holder said he now believes it would be good for the Justice Department to formulate a clearer policy. "I thought about it during this hearing, that might be a better policy to have in place, to have written recusals," Holder said.
Contact Todd Ruger at email@example.com.