As a trio of scandals continued to circle the White House on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threw some jabs at Republicans regarding the IRS and Benghazi controversies. Then he landed a roundhouse on the Obama administration over the Justice Department’s secret acquisition of Associated Press telephone records.
“I have trouble defending what the Justice Department did in going after — looking at The AP,” the Nevada Democrat said in the most unequivocal statement regarding the three issues that have consumed Washington the past few days. “And I really believe in the First Amendment,” Reid continued. “I think it’s one of the great things we have as a country. And I don’t know who did it or why it was done, but it’s inexcusable and there’s no way to justify this.”
On Benghazi, Reid said Republicans were “hyperventilating,” accusing them of creating a “side show” following news last week of emails about the talking points that would go out after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others.
“This issue is about generating headlines and campaign fodder for Republicans, and nothing else,” he said.
On the IRS scandal, which popped up last week when the agency admitted to targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, Reid used the opportunity to accuse the GOP of hypocrisy and to plug Democrats’ legislation to require more campaign finance disclosure.
“In 2010 we advanced — Democrats advanced something called the DISCLOSE Act that would have taken the IRS out of the business of investigating these groups. Not a single Republican voted with us on the DISCLOSE Act. So, again I ask, where was the outrage of the Republicans then?” Reid said.
But on the AP imbroglio, Reid gave it to the administration and brought up the specter of some sort of “legislative action.” Speaking to a corridor full of reporters Tuesday, Reid said: “I — in my career, I’ve stood consistently for freedom of the press from encroachment by the national security community. I’m gonna continue to do that. It’s an issue I feel very strongly about. And look into further — I’ll look further into whether more legislative action is needed in this regard to secure freedom of the press.”
Down Pennsylvania Avenue, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney faced a press corps hungry for answers on the AP probe, which he said the White House was not involved in.
He did, though, say that a “careful balance here must be attained,” between an “unfettered” press and finding out how classified information is leaked.
“I can tell you that the president feels strongly that we need a — the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism. And you saw, when he was a senator, the president co-sponsor legislation that would have provided further protections for journalists in this regard. And he is also mindful of the need for secret and classified information to remain secret and classified in order to protect our national security interests.”
Carney referred specific questions about the Justice Department investigation to the DOJ.
Coincidentally, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was holding a Tuesday news conference to publicize arrests the government had made for Medicare fraud. After Holder and others finished their remarks, the attorney general was asked about the AP probe. Although he recused himself from the matter previously, Holder was unapologetic about the investigation and its secret acquisition of AP telephone records, including from lines into the congressional press galleries.
“Now, I’m not familiar with all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. I was recused from that matter. But I’m confident that the people who are involved in this investigation, who I’ve [known] for a great many years, I’ve worked with for a great many years, followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations, and did things according to DOJ rules,” Holder said. He also said the nature of the leak warranted such actions.
“Well, you know, as I said, I don’t know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. This was a very serious — a very serious leak, and a very, very serious leak. I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976. And I have to say that this is among — if not the most serious — it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen,” he said, while reiterating that, with his recusal, he did not have all the facts in front of him regarding the legal justification for the subpoena.
Such a position put him at odds with the Senate’s top Democrat.
“I think that someone from the Justice Department could have gone to the AP and said, ‘Hey, will you help us with this?’” Reid said. “If they said no, fine. Then they could have maybe gone a step further. But I don’t think this is fair, just to start subpoenaing records.”
The congressional press galleries are in the process of preparing a response to the Justice Department on the matter.
Disclosure: Jason Dick is a member of the Executive Committee of Periodical Correspondents and CQ Roll Call staff writer John Donnelly is a member of the Standing Committee of Correspondents.