The second day of Senate confirmation hearings for Loretta Lynch seemed more of an exercise in shadowboxing than a fight over her qualifications to be the next attorney general.
Despite wide bipartisan support for Lynch’s nomination, much of Thursday’s five-hour hearing was spent with Republican senators taking shots at the Obama administration's policies on gay marriage, immigration, and voting, as well as past scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service and Attorney General Eric Holder’s oversight of the Justice Department — all of which Lynch had no hand in shaping or the constitutional power to condemn or validate.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, sharply criticized his his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying they violated rule 89 of George Washington’s 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior." The dictum reads: “Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.”
“There is no opportunity here for Attorney General Holder to answer these charges that have been made,” Whitehouse said. “I think it is fundamentally unjust and frankly beneath the dignity of this committee.”
Thursday’s hearing drew a panel of outside witnesses, a number of whom were invited by Republicans to offer opposition to the Obama administration’s policies and use of executive powers — including the president's most recent assertion that he’d exercise his executive powers of prosecutorial discretion in deferring the deportations of parents of young immigrants.
The Republican invitees included investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, who alleges the administration hacked into her computer and blackballed her from important briefings because of her investigation into the "Fast and Furious" scandal. Others asked to testify also included Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True The Vote, a group that has come under scrutiny for its work around expanding strict new voting laws; and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke Jr., who said Holder’s comments about race and American policing during the fallout in Ferguson fueled the fire of racial tension.
Yet, a telling moment was when Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, asked the witnesses to raise their hands if they opposed Lynch’s nomination. Not a single hand was raised.
Witnesses invited to the hearing to testify on Lynch’s personal and professional virtues called her a “tough, fair and gracious” prosecutor with “sound judgment, legal acumen and independence.”
The Rev. Clarence Newsome, a Baptist minister who has known Lynch’s family for decades, described her as a “leader among leaders." He added that her spiritual and moral strength has been passed down through the generations.
"I think it is fundamentally unjust and frankly beneath the dignity of this committee."'
“Loretta is the product of one of the most outstanding families in the state of North Carolina,” Newsome said, noting that her brother, father and four generations of grandfathers have served as clergy and community leaders.
During the first day of testimony on Wednesday, Lynch fielded questions from the senators and agilely deflected attempts to attach her to controversial Obama administration policy. In doing so, she seemed to remain unfazed.
When pressed about just how different she would be from Holder, Lynch, a 30-year prosecutor who twice has been confirmed by the Senate to serve as the U.S. Attorney in New York said “If confirmed as attorney general, I would be myself. I would be Loretta Lynch.”
If confirmed, Lynch would be the first African-American woman to hold the nation’s top law enforcement job, succeeding Holder, the nation’s first African-American to hold the position.
Lynch was not in attendance during Thursday’s hearing, where she was described as a “prosecutor’s prosecutor” who is independent, diplomatic.
Janice Fedarcyk, former assistant director in charge of the FBI field office in New York, the largest FBI field office in the country, said she worked hand in hand with Lynch on some of the most complicated cases in the nation, including the take down of 138 mafia figures, international terror cases, public corruption and gangs.
“She led from the front,” Fedarcyk said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, called Lynch “exceptionally qualified” and “a great person to boot."
“I can tell she was raised right,” Hatch said. “I’m going to be a strong supporter of her nomination.”
But like other Republicans on the committee, Hatch’s praised for Lynch came couched in outright contempt for the current White House.
Many used the testimony of Attkisson, the former CBS News journalist, and Engelbrecht, the conservative activist, to jab at the administration.
Attkisson said the treatment of journalists by the Obama administration has made “getting at the truth more difficult” and alleged that government surveillance of reporters could cause “long-term damage to a supposedly free press.”
“The message has already been received: If you cross the administration with perfectly accurate reporting that they don’t like, you will be attacked and punished,” Attkisson said. “You and your sources may be subjected to the kind of surveillance devised for enemies of the state.”
Engelbrecht, who called the IRS “perhaps the most feared organization in the world,” said she’d been the target of 15 audits or investigations by government agencies including the IRS, OSHA, the ATF and FBI.
“I’m here today because I was targeted by the government for daring to speak out. I’m here as one of thousands of Americans who have become living examples of a kind of trickle down tyranny that is actively endorsed by the current Administration and rigorously enforced by the Department of Justice,” Engelbrecht said. “For six years the Department of Justice has operated as an increasingly rogue agency, where preservation of personal liberties runs a distant second to preservation of political power. Will new leadership be any different?”
Lynch only needs a thumbs-up from three Republicans on the committee to be confirmed, a bar that seems likely to be reached. During Wednesday’s hearings she certainly earned a few points from the right when she affirmed that she was no Eric Holder, that the Constitution — not politics — would be her guiding star, and that she supported the death penalty.
At least two Republican senators on the committee have been outspoken about their objection to Lynch based on her refusal to condemn the president's policies.
"For six years the Department of Justice has operated as an increasingly rogue agency .... Will new leadership be any different?"'
Sen.s Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions, from Texas and Alabama respectively, hammered at Obama’s recent immigration orders in particular and sneered at Lynch’s earlier response that she saw the president’s proclamation of prosecutorial discretion as constitutional.
“I don’t see any need for Congress to confirm somebody to be the chief law enforcement officer of this nation who is at that table insisting that she intends to execute a policy that is contrary to law and to what Congress desires and what the American people desire,” Session said. “And says that someone here unlawfully is as much entitled to a job in this as somebody who is here lawfully. It is just beyond my comprehension.”
Democrats on the Senate committee took umbrage with all the jabs irrelevant to Lynch’s qualifications. Sen. Whitehouse said that he regretted that the hearing had devolved into “a soundbite factory for Fox News and conspiracy theorists everywhere.”
“We actually have a nomination in front of us,” he said. “She appears by all measure to be a great person …. Let’s get about the business of confirming her. And if you’re against Holder then get on and confirm Lynch.”