Mutual Contempt

The White House strategy for dealing with this season of scandals is to make Republicans look like unreasonable and overzealous crazies.

Eric H. Holder testifies during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Holder faced questions about Benghazi

By Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.

Rep. Darrell Issa was almost finished with his question to Attorney General Eric Holder when he suddenly allowed his witness a Moment. That was dangerous. Reporters like Moments. They write our stories for us, and allow us more free time to spend worrying about the stock price of our media companies or whether the hot new Web app will put us out of work again. They’re much less useful for the politicians who make them.

And yet we saw it coming with Issa. When he arrived at today’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, cameramen jumped up for fresh photos of the Benghazi star. The California Republican flashed a smile for them. Halfway through his questions, as he asked Holder to make more e-mails from labor secretary nominee Tom Perez public, Issa couldn’t resist mocking his witness’s answers. 

“Our investigators have seen 34 of the 35 emails that violate the Federal Records Act,” said Issa. “They have only seen the To and From.”

Holder apologized, offering one of many surprised-sounding explanations to a question he hadn’t really thought about. “I’m sure there must have been a good reason why only the To and From parts were—”

Issa interrupted him. “Yes, you didn’t want us to see the details.” He briefly broke up with laughter, as did staffers behind him.

Holder pounced. “No, no, that’s what you typically do,” he said, talking over Issa. “No, I’m not going to stop talking now. You have characterized something as—” 

Issa tried to assert his fleeting dominance of the room. “Mr. Chairman,” he asked Rep. Bob Goodlatte, “would you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee?”

Holder kept talking. “That is inappropriate,” he said, “and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It’s unacceptable, and it’s shameful.”

A little noise rose from the press and public watching this display—a little embarrassed “Ooooooh.” This wasn’t just drama, it was drama Issa must have been ready for. President Obama’s administration doesn’t like or respect the congressman, at all. Two years ago this week, the White House actually hired a communications staffer who’d been battle-hardened by Senate and presidential campaigns, and gave him a hot portfolio: “matters relating to and resulting from investigations launched by Rep. Darrell Issa.”

Since then Obama and company have treated every Issa request like an incoherent bleat from a crazy person. At a two-question press conference this week, the president derided Congress for obsessing over Benghazi. “Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days?” he asked. Holder himself, later in 2011, had smacked back at his inquisitor by accusing him of McCarthyism. “At some point,” he’d told Issa, “as they said in the McCarthy hearings—at some point, have you no shame?”

In another time—or maybe because they haven’t got around to it yet this time—Republicans would have called these “Saul Alinksy tactics.” Another, simpler term might just be “tactics.” Democrats in the Obama era have always exploited the other side, elevating the people and arguments they can most easily deride. That didn’t quite work in 2009 and 2010. There was a brief moment when Democrats thought voter anger over the health care bill, boiling over in town hall meetings, would be good for the president, because independents would react with horror at the outbursts.

That was an easy mistake. The White House thought that voters would react to angry Tea Party activists the way they reacted to politicians, to members of Congress. They didn’t. But voters still hate members of Congress, and there are plenty of them to mock, and to ask people to mock. As the Benghazi story returned last week, the White House found an unwitting ally in Sen. Rand Paul, who kept admitting that the story was potentially damaging to Hillary Clinton. “I think it precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office,” he kept saying. This was supposed to be a Republican subtext. Paul kept writing it in plain old text.

The White House would like to keep running this play, if Republicans would only go along with it. Their strongest possible allies right now are any members of Congress who muse about impeachment, which they’ll be asked about as they run the circuit of conservative talk radio and conferences. Over the weekend, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who’s early to jump on any administration scandal, told the conservative talker Rusty Humphries that “people may be starting to use the I-word before too long.”

Most Republicans know the game. On Tuesday, as he was talking to reporters about the less-exciting push for a select committee on Benghazi (something Sen. Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner keep nixing), Sen. John McCain made a clownishly disgusted face at the very idea. “Wait a minute!” he said. “ Let’s find out all the facts, before we say the I-word.”

But it had already been said, with all the expected side effects. In 1974, the conservative activist and writer M. Stanton Evans joked that scandal made him realize that the president had the right enemies: “I didn’t support Nixon until Watergate.” In 2013, the White House aims to simultaneously prove that the IRS, Benghazi, and AP stories don’t implicate the president and that the people who think it does are themselves a grave danger.

The Issa-Holder showdown helped that along. The tensest moments over the rest of the day came when Republicans tried to trap Holder in a theoretical violation of procedure. He had outsourced the investigation of media leaks to two U.S. attorneys, but he had never actually written down that he was recusing himself from the investigation. The U.S. attorneys ended up acting as if Holder were recused, going to a deputy AG to subpoena AP reporters’ information.

“Are you saying there’s no paper trail here?” asked Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Marino. “[Nothing to say] why you recused yourself and for what reasons?”

“As I’ve thought about it,” said Holder, “actually during the course of this hearing, that might be a better policy.”

“Don’t you think it would have been the best practice for you to just put it in writing?” asked Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador.

“I’m gonna go back and think about whether there’s some sort of policy I ought to put in place,” said Holder.

The hearing concluded; the White House released a trove of internal emails about Benghazi and announced a presidential press conference for Thursday. All that was needed to keep on polarizing the scandals was one more Republican going off and freelancing about them. And there, right there in the reporter’s inbox, was the manna from heaven.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, chairwoman of the Tea Party Caucus and former federal tax attorney, will hold a press conference on Thursday, May 16, with Tea Party leaders who will tell their stories of IRS intimidation and demand further investigation.