Grassley to AG nominee: 'The Justice Department is a big mess'

Grassley to AG nominee: 'The Justice Department is a big mess'

Calling the Justice Department "a big mess," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySeniors win big with Trump rebate rule  Klobuchar: ObamaCare a 'missed opportunity' to address drug costs Just one in five expect savings from Trump tax law: poll MORE demanded Wednesday that President Obama's nominee to serve as the nation's next attorney general explain how she would improve operations at the agency.

“The Justice Department is a big mess, and we want to know how she’s going to straighten out the department,” Grassley (R-Iowa) said Tuesday at the start of Lynch's highly anticipated confirmation hearing. 

Lynch is caught in the crossfire between angry Republicans and the Obama administration, as she takes the hot seat.

Republicans say they’ve lost faith in the Department of Justice and are looking for Lynch to distinguish herself from outgoing Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump steps up attacks on McCain Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left Press: Which way do Dems go in 2020? MORE.

They’re using the occasion to air longstanding grievances. Controversies surrounding the DOJ, such as the failed Fast and Furious gun-running operation, could play as big of a role in Lynch’s confirmation hearing as her record as a federal prosecutor. 

Grassley accused the department of becoming “deeply politicized” under Holder at the opening of the confirmation hearing.

“But that’s what happens when the attorney general of the United States views himself, in his own words, as the president’s 'wingman,’ ” Grassley said.

Even Republicans admit Lynch is likely to be confirmed but not before she faces tough questions about the DOJ’s role in recent controversies.

One of the biggest problems with the agency, Republicans say, is that it has become too political under the Obama administration.

“We need an attorney general that won’t politicize the office,” Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRosenstein still working at DOJ despite plans to leave in mid-March Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump O'Rourke on impeachment: 2020 vote may be best way to 'resolve' Trump MORE (R-Ala.) told The Hill. “It will be important that she is ready to tell the president, 'No,’ if he overreaches."

But the panel’s top Democrat is urging Republicans to stay above the partisan fray.

“Ms. Lynch deserves to be judged on her own record,” Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyCitizens lose when partisans play politics with the federal judiciary Senate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Patrick Leahy sits at center of partisan judicial nominations MORE (D-Vt.) said. “I am confident that, if we stay focused on Ms. Lynch’s impeccable qualifications and her reputations for fairness, she will be quickly confirmed by the Senate.”

The Senate unanimously confirmed her to serve as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York in 2010, Leahy pointed out.

But it will be difficult for Republicans to resist the urge to hurl attacks at the Obama administration during the confirmation hearing.

Grassley believes President Obama has overstepped his authority with “breathtaking expansions of federal power," and the committee's GOP members will grill Lynch to see where she stands on the issue.

“I don’t expect Ms. Lynch and I will agree on every issue,” Grassley said. “But I, for one, need to be persuaded Ms. Lynch will be an independent attorney general.”

Obama’s executive order from late last year granting amnesty to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants is the focus of one the GOP's biggest gripes. The president has instructed the Justice Department to execute prosecutorial discretion for the parents of immigrants who are authorized to live here.

GOP lawmakers say this is an egregious abuse of the president’s executive power. Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterBottom Line Bottom Line Top 5 races to watch in 2019 MORE (R-La.) has already said he will vote against Lynch’s nomination in protest of Obama’s immigration order. Other Republicans on the panel are waiting to see how she responds to questions about amnesty.

“I think [the president] is way out of line doing what he’s doing on immigration,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchNY's political prosecution of Manafort should scare us all Congress must break its addiction to unjust tax extenders The FDA crackdown on dietary supplements is inadequate MORE (R-Utah) told The Hill. “He admitted that himself.”

The "Fast and Furious” gun-running operation is sure to be a point of contention for Republicans, who are still reeling over DOJ missteps that put thousands of guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

Sheryl Attkisson, the former CBS News reporter who investigated Fast and Furious, will testify about the DOJ’s botched operation and is also likely to discuss her accusations that the agency was spying on her.

The Justice Department’s treatment of journalists is sure to be in the spotlight, as George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley will testify about the government’s seizure of phone records from The Associated Press.

Turley called for Holder to resign following the revelations that the DOJ was spying on journalists.

Holder recently overhauled department policies to shield journalists from unconstitutional searches by federal prosecutors. 

Lynch could also face questions about police reforms. She is at the center of the national controversy surrounding overly aggressive police tactics and racial profiling. 

She is leading the civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed by a police officer. Tensions are also swirling over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo. 

Republicans will be particularly interested in Lynch’s drug policies. Some lawmakers are upset that as attorney general, Holder pushed to relax the nation’s drug laws.

The Justice Department under Holder has also played a central role in pushing for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights in states around the country — another topic Lynch could be asked about.