Attorney General Eric Holder probably wishes that this afternoon wasn't the afternoon on which he'd agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee several weeks ago. But it is, offering his harshest critics an opportunity to pour a little salt into Holder's open wounds. It's unlikely that the damage will be job-threatening. (Update: Here's our report on the hearing.)
Despite a full third of Congressional committees investigating something or other right now, the Judiciary Committee is responsible for oversight of the Department of Justice, making such appearances by the Attorney General a matter of course. (Four years ago yesterday, for example, Holder made his first such appearance.) Reading the overview of today's hearing released by committee chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, however, one gets a sense of how the timing of today's hearing kept transforming. The Attorney General "has some explaining to do regarding wasteful spending at the Justice Department," Goodlatte says. Oh, but before that, the hearing will cover how the FBI "received intelligence about the [Boston] bombers but failed to connect the dots." Oh, and before that, "Members of the Committee will also ask pointed questions about the Justice Department's decision to obtain two months worth of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press." That sound you hear is a bit being champed.
If Holder's press outreach so far is any indicator, the Committee may not get many satisfactory answers on the AP issue. Yesterday, Holder indicated that he wasn't involved in the decision in that case, having recused himself from involvement after having been interviewed by the FBI. But he also embraced it, saying that the leak that prompted the investigation was "within the top two or three most serious leaks" he'd ever seen. Nor did he shy away from subpoenaing media records as a tactic. In an interview with NPR, Holder implied that the Department of Justice doing so was not unprecedented during his tenure.
"I'm not sure how many of those cases ... I have actually signed off on," Holder said. "I take them very seriously. I know that I have refused to sign a few [and] pushed a few back for modifications."
As The Hill notes, it's unlikely that Holder will have many friends facing him from the dais during his testimony today. Democrats have generally been as critical of the department's inquiry into the Associated Press as Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid summarized one line of thinking:
[Reid] 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.”
Reid won't be at the hearing, of course, but that line of reasoning will certainly be raised.
Despite facing opposition from his own party, it's hard to imagine that Holder's job is at risk — at this point, anyway. Our colleagues at the National Journal present a robust case for why it's possible: Holder has long faced strong criticism that has forced Obama to come to his defense. (Some of that older criticism, particularly around the "Fast and Furious" program, will certainly be raised today.) But each time, Obama has stood by Holder, and the attorney general serves the president.
While White House spokesman Jay Carney didn't comment on the AP story yesterday, he did broadly defend the need to investigate leaks. Given the White House's vigor in doing so, that's not a surprise. In other words, there's little evidence — so far — that Holder did anything that the White House wouldn't have wanted him to do. And it's very possible that we are near the apex of criticism the Department of Justice will face: that the leak investigation will blur into the background of political conversation and Holder will keep trudging forward. It's how he's managed to stick around so far.
All of this could change at 1:00 p.m., when Holder gets to Capitol Hill. One wrong answer or undue revelation, and critique of Holder could suddenly shift in an entirely new direction. Which is exactly what the attorney general's opponents in the House are imagining as they sharpen their knives.