In 2007, Obama, then a senator with higher ambitions, chided President George W. Bush for employing his executive authority to block then-senior White House adviser Karl Rove from testifying before Congress in a scandal involving the firing of nine U.S. attorneys.
Speaking to CNN host Larry King, Obama declared that the Bush administration had a tendency to “hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky that’s taking place.”
Obama urged Bush to consider “coming clean,” adding that “the American people deserve to know what was going on there.”
On Wednesday, his role had changed, but the debate was the same: Republican were asking what exactly Obama was trying to hide by invoking his right to executive privilege for the first time. The administration is refusing to turn over documents related to the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” operation, which involved the flow of illegal guns to Mexico. A House committee on Wednesday voted to find Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over the documents.
The answers to his critics’ questions could have broad implications for Obama five months before voters decide whether to grant him a second term. The expected protracted legal dispute has the potential to embarrass and distract the White House during the heart of the reelection campaign. Obama’s assertion of privilege quickly became fodder for his political opponents, who have latched onto the Fast and Furious scandal to accuse the president of trying to avoid congressional scrutiny.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Obama on Wednesday asking for more detail on the exact scope of the privilege that Obama invoked.
Administration officials dismissed suggestions that the president's action contradicted the position Obama held as a presidential candidate in 2007. They noted the administration already has handed over 7,600 documents to Congress and Holder has testified nine times.
But Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University who has testified before Congress on executive privilege, said the question is not how many times the power is invoked but whether there is a legal justification.
The Constitution does not mention executive privilege, said Rozell, who noted that courts have typically ruled that it applies in cases of vital national security interests.
That might be the legal definition, but the political calculus for the White House is whether what Obama is seeking to keep private is more damaging to him than failing to publicly disclose the documents.
The political stakes are almost as high in the Fast and Fuious investigation for Oversight committee chairman Rep. Darell Issa (R-Calif.), Ed O’Keefe reported:
What the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ultimately might be most remembered for is what happened in his hearing room Wednesday.
The investigation has earned Issa and the oversight panel wide news coverage, disdain from Democratic supporters of Holder who claim Issa allowed the investigation to devolve into a personal attack on the attorney general, and acclaim from conservatives eager to find any fault with President Obama and his administration.
Issa seized on the Fast and Furious case only after Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, failed to get answers from the Justice Department and White House about the operation, named after the popular movie series, which was run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011. Devoting considerable money and manpower to the probe, Issa made use of his subpoena power, an investigative tool Grassley lacked in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Issa has also made use of his subpoena power in much less notable cases, issuing more than 700 formal requests for information and roughly two dozen subpoenas since taking over the committee last year. Virtually every inquiry — large or small — has been followed up with press releases from his aggressive press staff.
As 2chambers first noted in February, for every request for information that leads to a public hearing or legislation, administration supporters and critics alike complain privately that many of Issa’s inquiries result in no follow-ups, no hearings or no reports. Essentially, some complain, there have been too many instances in which there was more show than substance.
Issa defended his strategy in an interview with 2chambers earlier this year, saying that he’s “a jack-of-all-trades and a master of as many as I could be. I didn’t come to Congress for one thing. I came to try to leave our country better by being here, so I’m never apologetic for taking on as many diverse issues as I can.”
Issa may want to be remembered as a serious, nonpartisan leader of government reform efforts, but Wednesday’s contempt vote — and the possibility of a full House vote on the matter next week — likely will cement his status as a partisan antagonist in the eyes of Democrats and a hero to conservative Republicans — whether he likes it or not.
Republican strategist Ed Rogers has some doubts about the political upside for Republicans in pursuing a vote to hold Holder in contempt:
This is the wrong fight at the wrong time for the attorney general. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial explaining some of the facts and legal issues of this case, and today, Dana Milbank has a clear piece in The Post from another point of view.
But Holder is playing to lose if the GOP will let him. The public generally has a bias toward more disclosure rather than less when the government has to account for its actions. And in this case, there is a dead American law enforcement officer, killed because of government failure or incompetence, which demands a full explanation. Just using the words "executive privilege" as an excuse to withhold information about government failures on this scale is a loser with the public.
But arguing in a partisan fashion is a loser for Republicans. Already there are GOP leaders who want to promote what they're doing, not just on the merits of the matter at hand, but by asserting that the Democrats were much worse in their treatment of the Bush Justice Department. That is not a reason to aggressively pursue this tragedy. No Republican or conservative commentator should even raise it. The notion that this is partially motivated by political payback is very damaging to what very little credibility Congress has today, and the approach is belittling to agent Brian Terry, who was killed, and unfair to his family. Also, by the way, it's the worst political move Republicans can make.
There are so many mutual feelings of unfair treatment among Republicans and Democrats that overreaching and over-acting has become the norm. The public tunes out when something becomes just another partisan squabble. Why isn't this more obvious to GOP leaders?
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