Heated words and insults flew on Capitol Hill Wednesday as GOP lawmakers questioned Attorney General Eric Holder, but very little of it had to do with the three major scandals now swirling around the Obama administration.
The most pointed exchange came when Holder called the behavior of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, “unacceptable” and “shameful.”
That was after Issa asked Holder to stop talking so he could resume his line of questioning about Assistant Attorney General and Labor Secretary nominee Thomas Perez, and emails the congressman accused the Justice Department of trying to hide.
When Holder refused to stop speaking, Issa said, “Mr. Chairman, will you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee?”
Holder then interrupted to say, “It is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It’s unacceptable, and it’s shameful.”
More fireworks erupted later when Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, insisted the FBI failed to follow up on tips about Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev provided by Russian intelligence.
Gohmert’s voice grew steadily louder as he faulted the FBI, and by implication, Holder, for not looking into tips on radicals in Boston-area mosques.
When Holder said some of Gohmert’s information was wrong, the congressman forcefully challenged him to name just one thing he had said that was factually incorrect.
The attorney general did not answer him directly, instead lecturing him, “I know what the FBI did. You cannot know.”
Lawmakers grilled Holder, but he provided precious little information about the three scandals now plaguing the White House.
Holder continued to insist that because he recused himself early in the investigation, he knows little about his Justice Department’s subpoena of a massive number of Associated Press phone records.
After he said the FBI would soon release its report, Holder endured little questioning about obstacles faced by the FBI in its investigation into the terror attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, and the dozen changes the administration made to talking points on the attack.
As with the AP scandal, Holder was able to employ a shield of constantly replying “I don’t know” when asked about the IRS’ targeting tea party and other conservative groups filing for tax-exempt status, by saying the criminal investigation he called for Friday had just begun and he was unfamiliar with the facts of the case.
The IRS scandal did cause a few harsh exchanges.
When Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, suggested the administration’s negative attitude toward Congress might have contributed to the IRS targeting conservatives, Holder took it personally.
He shot back, “I’m not the cause of people in the IRS doing things that might have been illegal. I am not taking – I will not take that.”
As impatient as Holder was with some of the questioning, so were some of the questioners with the attorney general.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, loudly and flatly stated that IRS administrator Lois Lerner had “lied to Congress” and “lied to the American people.”
Lerner admitted last week that the IRS flagged about 300 conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for extra review. Jordan said it now looks like the number was closer to 500 and that Lerner had lied to Congress on four separate occasions.
Jordan said even though Lerner will testify before Congress next week, he is afraid the attorney general’s announcement that he is commencing a criminal investigation into the matter will provide Lerner an excuse to say she can’t comment on a matter under criminal investigation.
At that point, Jordan told Holder, “Let’s be frank, you don’t have much credibility.”
Holder mildly said he disagreed with that and Jordan’s accusation of Lerner’s untruthfulness.
Finally, after facing a series of basic but tough questions about scandals that he insisted he just could not answer, Holder grew even more testy and delivered a lecture to Republicans on their character.
“I don’t, frankly, think I’ve always been treated with respect, and it’s not even a personal thing,” he complained.
“That’s one thing. But I am the attorney general of the United States,” he reminded the elected representatives tasked with overseeing his department. “It’s almost a toxic partisan atmosphere where basic levels of civility simply don’t exist.”
Holder maintained he has tried to remain respectful of Congress and its oversight role, but Republicans have made that difficult.
And then he complained again, “I’ve tried to do that. Maybe I’ve not always been successful. I certainly know that I have not been treated in that way all the time.”
But it wasn’t just Republicans asking Holder tough questions.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., criticized the Justice Department’s secretly seizing AP phone records, saying it might have a chilling effect on journalists and their sources.
“It seems to me clear that the actions of the department have in fact impaired the First Amendment,” Lofgreen said. “Reporters who might have previously believed that a confidential source would speak to them will no longer have that level of confidence.”
Lofgren then touched on an issue that may dog Holder, even though he had recused himself from the AP investigation.
She asked how Holder had recused himself, and Holder replied that he didn’t think he did it in writing.
That meant, without documentation, it was really impossible to verify whether Holder recused himself before or after he learned about key facts of the investigation.
Lofgren said, “I think this is a very serious matter that I think concerns all of us, no matter our party affiliation.”
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., also asked Holder why there is no written record of his recusal from the case.
Holder claimed the Justice Department had made an unsuccessful search for a written record of his recusal and admitted it may not exist.