GOP Folds Its Cards at Holder Hearing

Attorney General Eric Holder escaped the Senate Judiciary Committee virtually unscathed on Wednesday, signaling that the political firestorm over his handling of big terrorism cases may have subsided.

Only a few months ago, Republicans were practically calling for Holder’s scalp, accusing him of bungling the Christmas Day bombing incident and making a wrongheaded decision to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in New York.

But at a long-anticipated hearing before the Senate on Wednesday, Holder firmly stood his ground—and got little resistance. He forcefully touted recent Justice Department successes in securing guilty pleas in major terrorism cases in New York and Chicago, and told the panel that accused Christmas Day underpants bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has provided “actionable” intelligence to federal authorities despite having been read his Miranda rights after his capture.

Perhaps more surprising, he told the panel that “New York is not off the table” to hold the 9/11 trial despite the state’s lawmakers and elected officials having turned against it. While the White House is still reviewing Holder’s initial decision to try the case in Manhattan, the attorney general said today that a final decision on where to hold the trial—and whether it should be in federal court or before a military commission—is still “weeks away.” And Republicans for the most part folded their cards. To be sure,  ranking minority committee member Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama started out the session by telling Holder that “your actions have shaken my confidence in your leadership” of the Justice Department. But his GOP colleagues barely pressed Holder on the KSM case and other volatile terrorism issues.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, for example, asked an initial series of questions about Holder’s refusal to publicly identify Justice Department lawyers who previously represented Guantánamo Bay detainees. Then when Holder forcefully defended his position—telling the Iowa Republican he would not allow “good decent lawyers” to have “their reputations besmirched”—Grassley quickly moved on to other matters, such as the Justice Department’s handling of Freedom of Information Act requests. Other usually fierce GOP attack dogs, such as Arizona Sen. John Kyl and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, also chose to use their time to question the A.G. about other issues, such as immigration and health-care fraud.

“They built this up as Holder’s Waterloo and completely backed off when he didn’t cave,” said one Democratic staffer about the GOP questioning.

In part, the relatively tepid hearing appears to reflect a more tempered political climate on the terrorism issue than in the weeks after the attempted Christmas Day bombing incident, when there appeared to be a genuine fear that the event may have signaled the start of a new wave of attacks against the homeland.

But the new, quieter GOP mood may also reflect a sense that at least some of Holder’s critics may have overreached. Most prominently, the Internet ad run by Liz Cheney’s Keep America Safe group slamming Holder for hiring “Al Qaeda lawyers” at Justice because nine had at one point previously represented Gitmo detainees was widely denounced—even by prominent former Bush administration officials—as a “shameless” and Joe McCarthy–like attack on the lawyers’ patriotism.

Without specifically naming Cheney, Holder today called recent ads on the issue “reprehensible.”

And Democratic senators such as Sen. Dick Durbin played up those attacks today, telling Holder that he should not allow the criminal-justice system to be “driven by fear and anger.”

"I think you are standing up for a very fundamental principle and rule of law here," he said, "that does go back to John Adams."

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