It only took Attorney General Eric Holder a few moments to make clear he wanted no part of congressional Republicans’ plans to turn his Capitol Hill appearance into a serious grilling about the scandals of the day.
“I appreciated this opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the Justice Department’s recent achievements,” Holder began.
His opening statement made no mention of grabbing the Associated Press’ phone records, Benghazi, or the IRS targeting conservatives for special scrutiny. That would all have to come during questioning.
But when questioning began, Holder added little more to the record. He said repeatedly he had recused himself from the AP probe, calling it both ongoing and something he knew little to nothing about. He quickly pivoted away from the few Republicans who pressed him on Begnhazi and he said that the IRS investigation had just begun, was ongoing, and not something he was ready to speak about.
Overall, Holder’s appearance did little to diffuse tensions with the GOP-controlled House or help contain the growing grassfire of scandals that threaten the Obama administration early in its second term.
“I don’t know” was one of Holder’s most common refrains on Wednesday.
For an Obama administration that Republicans, and a few Democrats, have accused of keeping Congress largely in the dark, Holder offered precious little new light on the issues of the day.
Holder had limited patience with Republicans on the panel – all of whom, except the freshmen who were not in Congress yet, had voted to hold him in contempt only last year. “I didn't show up here because I really wanted to,” Holder told one of his GOP inquisitors late in the afternoon.
“If you don't like me that's one thing,” Holder declared, as he sparred with another lawmaker, “but I am the attorney general of the United States.”
Holder suggested early on that he was being targeted by Republicans for political gain.
“I was not the person who was involved in that decision,” Holder said of the AP phone-records case. “The head of the RNC called for my resignation in spite of the fact that I was not the person who was involved in that decision.”
The hearing mostly proceeded as an airing of GOP grievances. At one point, Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner scolded Holder to go to the library of former President Truman to visit the famed sign that read “The buck stops here.”
Several Republicans questioned Holder’s moral authority, even as he testified under oath. “You don’t have that much credibility,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
The biggest sparks flew when Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, aggressively questioned Holder.
As Issa tried to cut Holder off from the start of what looked to be a long-winded answer, Holder retorted, “The way you conduct yourself as a member of Congress is unacceptable and shameful.”
No exchange embodied the multi-hour hearing as much as when Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, declared there was a “pattern” of the Obama administration not taking responsibility for its failures. “Do you agree?” Chabot said.
“Uh, no,” Holder replied.
Then they both moved on.