By Jordy Yager - 05/15/13 09:00 AM EDT
Attorney General Eric Holder will face a barrage of questions Wednesday on Capitol Hill in the wake of his decision to recuse himself from a Justice Department investigation that has targeted media phone records.
Holder has been in the hot seat before, but Democratic lawmakers have always strongly defended him. This time, however, he and his department have little political cover.
The investigation was launched nearly a year ago when Holder appointed two U.S. attorneys to look into a series of national security leaks. Members in both parties said at the time they were the worst leaks in recent history.
Amid calls for his resignation and a push for a select committee to investigate the department, Holder on Tuesday said the rules were strictly followed.
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“I’m not familiar with all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. I was recused from that matter,” said Holder at a press conference. “But I’m confident that the people who are involved in this investigation … followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules.”
Holder added that the leak that sparked the subpoena was “a very, very serious leak.”
The DOJ’s decision to subpoena the outgoing phone records of 20 AP employees has provoked outrage from media outlets and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Some Republicans have compared the DOJ’s actions to those taken during the Nixon administration.
Holder said he recused himself from issuing the AP subpoena — which Deputy Attorney General James Cole authorized — because he was interviewed as a potential suspect of the leaks and his involvement in the case could have created the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he couldn’t comprehend why the DOJ subpoenaed the phone records and that he plans to explore whether legislation is needed to further secure the freedom of the press.
“I have trouble defending what the Justice Department did in going out and looking at the AP,” Reid said. “I really believe in the First Amendment. I think it’s one of the great things we have as a country. I don’t know who did it and why it was done, but it’s inexcusable. There’s no way to justify this.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who helped shepherd Holder’s nomination through the upper chamber, said earlier this week he was “very troubled” by the department’s actions.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee and a longtime critic of the DOJ, told The Hill on Tuesday that Congress should form a select committee to investigate the department.
“I think it’s so bad we need a select committee to look into how the Justice Department can be doing this,” Grassley said.
Holder is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and many of the panel’s members, including Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), said they plan to grill the attorney general about his role in the subpoena to the AP.
The incident has put the White House and Democrats in a tough spot, especially with simultaneous investigations into the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups and the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year.
On Tuesday, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus called on Holder to resign. Many others in the GOP, including dozens of House Republicans and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), have previously called for Holder’s head.
Last year, House Republicans led a successful vote placing Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to release documents they had subpoenaed in their investigation of the failed gun-walking operation “Fast and Furious.”
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) is renewing his press for a resolution he introduced in January calling for Holder’s “immediate resignation.” It has 53 co-sponsors.
“Whether it be Fast and Furious, to letting the IRS target the Tea Party, to secretly obtaining records from the press, Mr. Holder continues to blatantly disregard our Constitution and do irreparable damage to the people’s trust in government,” Gosar said in a statement to The Hill.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday said President Obama strongly supports a free press and remains confident in Holder, but he refused to comment on the overall investigation of the leaks because it isn’t concluded.
The AP has called the government’s action a “massive intrusion” that struck at the heart of a free press. The organization’s President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the secret subpoena is “a serious interference with the AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
On Tuesday, Cole rejected the AP’s demand that the DOJ return the phone records and destroy all copies of them. The deputy attorney general said the subpoena was issued as a last resort and that the records, which do not detail the content of any phone calls, would not be used in any other investigation.
The investigation is believed to cover several unauthorized disclosures of information to journalists, including a New York Times article detailing the U.S. launch of a cyberattack against Iran, reports of an administration “kill list” of terrorist targets, expanded drone operations and the disclosure of a Yemeni double agent who infiltrated al Qaeda.
Several Senate Republicans, including Grassley, pressed last year for the appointment of an outside special counsel to conduct the investigation instead of the U.S. attorneys. They argued the administration had used the leaks to highlight Obama’s national security credentials ahead of his reelection effort in 2012 and that an impartial investigator was needed.
Obama said at the time that it was outrageous to say the leaks were politically motivated.
Like Holder, Cole has clashed with Congress. Senate Republicans blocked his 2010 nomination for a year before he was confirmed with the support of only a handful of Republicans.
Cole later butt heads with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) over the Fast and Furious operation.