Scandal hierarchies can be tricky, because even the most honest political observers can have sincere disagreements over the seriousness of a controversy. It seems to me, though, that if there are three main Obama administration “scandals” – Benghazi, IRS scrutiny, and AP subpoenas – one rises above the other two.
The Benghazi story is a tragedy and a national-security matter, but attempts to turn it into a political controversy have been misguided. The IRS story is legit, but limited – it’s hard to run an all-caps “White House in crisis!” banner headline when we’re talking about confused bureaucrats struggling with vague tax-law guidelines, far from political interference.
But subpoenaing journalists’ phone logs raises more meaningful questions about freedom of the press and law-enforcement overreach. It’s not a story about the president or the White House, per se, but when the Justice Department pushes the envelope, it’s a reflection of administration policy.
And yet, oddly enough, Republicans seem uncharacteristically passive about the one controversy arguably matters most.
Republican senators who have long been critics of Attorney General Eric Holder were noticeably muted on Tuesday when asked to respond to the news of the Justice Department seizing reporters’ records as part of a broader probe into national security leaks.
“Well, I think we need to see how this plays out,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of Holder’s biggest critics and who last year demanded that the attorney general resign amid the Fast and Furious gun-running probe. “I have questions about it, but I’m willing to wait and see how this plays out, whether it was narrowly targeted or whether it was a net that was too broadly cast,” Cornyn said.
“I want to see the details – what was their rationale, why did they do it – before offering an opinion,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who earlier this week accused the administration of engaging in a “cover-up” in Benghazi. “For me, to rush to a judgment without knowing all the facts is just not appropriate.”
Really? Cornyn has never seen any need to “wait and see how this plays out” with other stories related to the Obama administration, and McCain loves rushing to judgment without knowing all the facts. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) condemned administration scandals yesterday, but didn’t mention the AP subpoenas, and neither House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) nor House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have commented on the AP story directly. [Update: Even Ted Cruz doesn’t seem to care.]
So what’s going on here? There’s one compelling explanation.
We could argue that freedom of the press isn’t exactly a top Republican priority, so they aren’t inclined to reflexively leap to the AP’s defense in this story, but I think there’s more to it than that.
In this case, Republicans appear to be largely taking a pass because they wanted this investigation and very likely approve of the Justice Department’s aggressiveness.
[I]t wasn’t so long ago that politicians in both parties didn’t think the administration was doing enough to investigate unauthorized disclosures of classified national security material.
In the summer of 2012, Republicans especially were calling for further scrutiny of national security leaks they believed came from the administration to prop up President Barack Obama’s re-election bid…. Last year, Republicans called for an independent counsel because they believed at the time the administration would not go far enough in pursuing the potential leakers.
Dave Weigel highlighted a series of quotes from congressional Republicans demanding a sweeping investigation of last year’s leak, which is exactly what the DOJ gave them. If Republicans expressed outrage about the AP story now, they’d effectively be arguing, “We can’t believe the Justice Department is doing what we suggested they do.”
Indeed, our pal James Carter flagged this video of Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) during a House Judiciary Committee last year, insisting that reporters should be subpoenaed as part of the leak investigation.
The story about the AP subpoenas should renew a conversation about a possible “shield” law for journalists, a policy the White House is still on record supporting. Does the ongoing controversy change the nature of congressional Republicans’ opposition to the law? Perhaps not.