Republicans in the United States Senate sought on Thursday to use the second day of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch’s confirmation hearing to continue to attack what they call the “lawlessness” of the Obama administration.
Ms. Lynch, currently the US Attorney for the Brooklyn-based Eastern District of New York, appears to be headed for a favorable committee vote.
But that didn’t stop several Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee from seeking to highlight what they said was the crumbling reputation of the Justice Department under outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder.
Senate Democrats complained that the confirmation hearing should focus exclusively on Ms. Lynch’s impressive background, her strong character, and years of service as a highly-regarded federal prosecutor.
Republicans embraced a different approach. They wanted to know what kind of an attorney general Lynch might become, and whether she has the mettle to rein in President Obama if or when his planned action is illegal or unconstitutional.
“It is about telling the President of the United States ‘No,’ when he has gone too far,” Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas said.
During her day-long testimony on Wednesday, Lynch dodged many of the Republican’s pointed questions, refusing to directly respond to stark hypothetical questions suggesting expansive presidential power run amok.
She did acknowledge that she believes Mr. Obama’s controversial executive action on immigration is legal and constitutional. And she said she would not seek to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted and harassed conservative political groups in the months prior to Obama’s reelection bid.
“The Department of Justice, under its current leadership, has failed to fulfill some of the most basic aspects of its mission. The question for me and a lot of members on this side is whether Ms. Lynch is committed to leading the Department of Justice in a new direction,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa said at the start of the hearing.
As proof of the eroding state of affairs at the Justice Department, the Republicans called to testify two constitutional law scholars who said the president’s executive action on immigration violated both immigration statutes and the Constitution. They said the legal advice offered by the Justice Department was wrong.
The Democrats called their own legal expert who said the president’s actions fell within the wide discretion granted to the executive branch on matters of immigration by Congress itself.
The Republicans also called an investigative journalist, Sharyl Attkisson, who told of a Justice Department and White House campaign of obstruction, harassment, and surveillance to undercut her reporting on a botched undercover gun-running operation on the Mexican border.
“The job of getting at the truth has never been more difficult,” Ms. Attkisson said.
She said three forensic exams of her computer revealed “intrusive, long-term remote surveillance.” The effort included keystroke monitoring, password capture, and the use of Skype to listen into audio and exfiltrate her files, she testified.
Attkisson said her treatment was part of a pattern of aggressive action by the administration to prevent reporters from uncovering and exposing stories they want kept quiet.
“The message has already been received: if you cross the administration with perfectly accurate reporting that they don’t like, you will be attacked and punished,” she said.
“You and your sources may be subjected to the kind of surveillance devised for enemies of the state,” Attkisson said.
The committee also called Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the voting integrity organization True the Vote, to testify about her experience with the IRS.
In 2010, Ms. Engelbrecht filed two applications for nonprofit status with the IRS, one for True the Vote, the other for a conservative political group called King Street Patriots.
“Since those filings in 2010, my private businesses, my nonprofit organizations, and I personally, have been subjected to more than 15 instances of audit, inquiry, or investigation by federal agencies, including the IRS, OSHA, ATF, and the FBI,” she told the senators.
When word of systematic IRS action against conservative political groups became public, the Attorney General Holder said there would be an investigation. But Engelbrecht said no investigator contacted her until nine months later.
She says the investigation is a “sham.”
Senator Grassley called her treatment by the government “disgraceful.”
“How did it make you feel to be targeted by the government for persecution,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas asked.
“It takes your breath away,” Engelbrecht said.
“Do you feel the truth has been uncovered and justice has been served,” Senator Cruz asked.
“Absolutely not,” she replied.
At one point in the hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island objected to testimony and discussion concerning Holder and the Justice Department.
“There are plenty of forums where the attorney general would have an opportunity to defend himself. This is not one,” Senator Whitehouse said.
“I think that is unjust and, frankly, beneath the dignity of this committee,” he said. “I regret that this has been turned into a sound bite factory for Fox News and conspiracy theorists everywhere.”
Whitehouse said he was proud of Holder’s record as attorney general and that Holder had served the country with “great distinction.”
Grassley responded to the comment by questioning whether Lynch, as attorney general, would respond to the identified problems by fixing them – or not.
He said during the Bush administration Democrats in the Senate used the same strategy during confirmation hearings for Michael Mukasey, focusing on problems at the Justice Department while asking the nominee how he would fix them.