The attorney general nomination hearings starting Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee are ostensibly about nominee Loretta Lynch. But they're really about outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder.
The committee's chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has said that Lynch should expect a "grilling," though she's likely to be confirmed with bipartisan support. And that's because the hearing is going to turn questions for Lynch, from issues ranging from immigration to marijuana legalization to transparency, into an airing of grievances of the Obama administration — and particularly Holder, Republicans' least favorite member of Obama's cabinet.
Just look at the witness roster for Lynch's confirmation hearings. It's been stacked with critics of Holder, from the founder of anti-voter fraud organization True the Vote to Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke (who said Holder's handling of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer "disgusted" him).
Why does the GOP hate Holder so much? The answers have something to do with policy — Holder is the face of the "Fast and Furious" scandal, and his Justice Department's been slammed over its resistance to transparency and prosecution of leakers. But it's also about what he represents. Holder's taken on the responsibility of going where the president can't — talking about race bluntly where Obama is conciliatory, expressing contempt for Republicans where Obama has to be polite. Together, Holder is the perfect caricature for GOP opposition. The man responsible for carrying out some of the Obama policies they hate most is also a personal proxy for the president — not just because they're both black men, but because they're personal friends.
The opposition to Holder is intense. House of Representatives even held him in criminal contempt of Congress in 2012, and when Holder announced he was resigning in September 2014, House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said in a statement that he "welcome(d) the news."
For Lynch, one of her strongest assets in her path to confirmation is that she's not Holder -- and he'll stay in place until someone else is confirmed. The question is whether Republicans will welcome Lynch as a chance to turn the page, or condemn her automatically for Holder's sins.
Fast and Furious
Of course, the House of Representatives didn't vote to find Holder in criminal contempt of Congress over a personality clash. They found him in contempt over a long, drawn-out fight over documents pertaining to "Operation Fast and Furious" — the scandal that's at the heart of Republican animosity toward Holder.
"Fast and Furious" is extremely likely to come up at the Lynch hearings, so here's a refresher. From 2009 to early 2011, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted an operation where they witnessed or found out about illegal firearms sales, but didn't bust them up immediately. Instead, they tried to track the guns after the sale — it's called "gunwalking" — and into Mexico, to help build a case against higher-ups in a criminal organization. (If you've seen The Wire, you know how this works.) This is something the ATF had done a few times before, including under the Bush administration.
The problem is that this time, they lost track of about 2,000 of the guns. Many of them made it into the hands of Mexican drug cartels — and two were used in a shootout in Arizona that killed a US Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry.
In February 2011, Holder sent a letter to Congress saying the ATF didn't do any gunwalking. That was wrong, and he's since admitted it was wrong and issued a formal withdrawal. (Internal emails that the DOJ has since released appear to show that Holder was really not happy when he found out that ATF agents had engaged in gunwalking.) But Republicans wanted to know why he'd said it to begin with — and whether it could have been a deliberate attempt to mislead them. So they tried to subpoena internal emails from the DOJ from before Holder issued the incorrect statement. When the DOJ didn't give them everything they asked for — citing "executive privilege" — the House held Holder in contempt for obstructing the investigation.
...which for some is also about gun control
"Fast and Furious" touched on a lot of hot-button issues for the GOP: border security, crime, and the Obama administration's expansion of executive power. But there's another big one: gun control in the US. Some conservatives believe that Fast and Furious was a deliberate move by the Obama administration to cause a wave of gun violence so that they could crack down on gun control.
The National Rifle Association hasn't explicitly endorsed this idea, but it's certainly encouraged it: an NRA spokesperson told the Daily Beast in 2012 that "he (was) not backing away from characterizing the confluence of events as a conspiracy, pointing out that Holder called for a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban in early 2009 at the same time Fast and Furious was being conceived." And the NRA "scored" the 2012 contempt vote: thee grades they issued legislators depended on part in whether they'd voted yes on Holder contempt.
The Obama administration hasn't done very much at all on gun control. But many conservatives are convinced that they might. And Fast and Furious — and Holder more generally — have become a focal point for those fears.
"The most transparent administration in history"
As with many scandals, though, the reason Republicans in Congress are still fretting over Fast and Furious is because of the "cover-up" — the refusal to turn over all the internal emails the House requested. Executive privilege, which was the basis for the White House's refusal, is usually used to protect sensitive information; it's not clear that it was totally justified in this case.
That sort of executive opacity has been another sticking point for Republicans in their dealings with the Obama administration, and especially with Holder. You'll probably hear a sarcastic reference to "the most transparent administration in history" during the Lynch hearings — a campaign promise that Republicans love to bring up to mock the administration for abandoning.
It's not just Republicans frustrated with opacity. Both parties have been concerned about the administration's treatment of journalists and whistleblowers — another topic that's nearly certain to come up in the Lynch hearings. Some of those concerns, like the attempt to force New York Times reporter James Risen to testify against a government source who'd leaked information to him, are legitimate questions for any Attorney General. (Last month, Holder decided to stop pressuring Risen to testify; the source, an ex-CIA agent, was convicted this week even without Risen's testimony.) Others are more about Holder than Lynch, like the controversy over whether Holder approved an investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2013. And some might not be about either: one of the witnesses the Senate Judiciary Committee is calling after Lynch takes questions is CBS' Sharyl Attkisson, who believes the government hacked her phone and computer while she was investigating Benghazi. (It probably didn't.)
Obama's "anger translator"
In other issues, too, frustration with the Justice Department and with Holder often spills over into frustration with the Obama administration as a whole, including policies that aren't really within the Attorney General's control. To some extent, this is true of any Cabinet official — but it's been more of a problem for Holder than for others. That's because Eric Holder himself is closely associated with Obama. He's been in the administration from the beginning, and — let's face it — he's the second-highest-ranking black man in America.
Both liberals and conservatives tend to see Holder as Obama's id — or, as Jamelle Bouie of Slate put it, as his "anger translator" a la the recurring Key and Peele sketch. Holder himself, according to Politico's Glenn Thrush, has told people that part of his job has been "to talk about things the president can't talk about as easily." That's especially true when it comes to talking about race, where Holder has often been blunter than the president. Holder's been less interested than the president in avoiding the stereotype of the "angry black man," and that stereotype is definitely one strain of the right's obsession with him.
"Good luck with your asparagus"
The animosity between Holder and Congressional Republicans clearly goes both ways; especially after the contempt vote, Holder's appearances before Congress have shown, well, contempt. That's made Holder a cause celebre for liberals: Democrats who can't name a single Holder accomplishment can probably remember the time he told Louie Gohmert "good luck with your asparagus," embarrassing Gohmert over something he'd said over a year earlier. (As usual with Holder, there's acontroversy.)
Since Lynch was nominated, it's become clear that congressional Republicans are being relatively friendly to her simply for not being Eric Holder. It's clear that the Senate Judiciary Committee will be using her confirmation hearings to air their grievances with Holder — but it's not clear how much they'll be projecting those grievances onto Lynch herself. If Lynch is questioned closely about race, in particular — something she's been much less outspoken about than her predecesssor — it'll be a sign that Congress isn't willing to turn the page on Holder just yet. (And since Lynch would be the first black woman to serve as Attorney General, Democrats will likely be watching closely to see if Republicans press her on race.)
If Holder's going to be a problem for Lynch in her confirmation hearings, though, he's actually the number-one reason she's likely to pass a final confirmation vote. Holder's said he's not going to step down formally until a permanent successor is in place. In other words, Republicans can't get rid of Eric Holder unless they vote to confirm Loretta Lynch. As much as Republicans are going to want to use the confirmation hearings as an exorcism of the Holder era, that's one big reason for them to be careful in distinguishing between the AG haunting the proceedings and the one actually in the room.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this article originally erroneously said that both Eric Holder and Barack Obama are biracial. Both Holder's parents have ancestry from Barbados.