Loretta Lynch’s Mission to Convince Congress She’s Not Eric Holder Is Working. So Far.

After one day of hearings, the potential attorney general is winning over some Republicans.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch leaves for a break during her confirmation hearing before Senate Judiciary Committee January 28, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Jan. 28, 2015, 3 p.m.

Lor­etta Lynch had one job in the first round of her con­firm­a­tion hear­ings to be Amer­ica’s top law­yer Wed­nes­day: Con­vince con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans she is noth­ing like Eric Hold­er, who would be her pre­de­cessor if she be­comes at­tor­ney gen­er­al. So far, she’s mak­ing a strong case to the Re­pub­lic­ans she has to win over.

In her open­ing state­ment, Lynch con­fron­ted the frayed re­la­tion­ship with Con­gress that has evolved dur­ing Hold­er’s ten­ure head-on as she as­sured mem­bers that a top pri­or­ity was “fos­ter­ing a new and im­proved re­la­tion­ship with this com­mit­tee,” a re­la­tion­ship “based on mu­tu­al re­spect and con­sti­tu­tion­al bal­ance.”

That, however, didn’t keep Re­pub­lic­ans from voicing skep­ti­cism and hold­ing her out as a scape­goat for their frus­tra­tions with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. From Pres­id­ent Obama’s ac­tions on im­mig­ra­tion to the IRS’s al­leged tar­get­ing of con­ser­vat­ive groups seek­ing non­profit status, Re­pub­lic­ans wanted to know if Lynch had any­thing in com­mon with the man she’d be suc­ceed­ing.

“You’re not Eric Hold­er, are you?” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked dur­ing his line of ques­tion­ing.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Or­rin Hatch of Utah asked Lynch if she would prom­ise to de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion even if it put her at odds with the pres­id­ent she was serving.

“Ab­so­lutely, sir,” she re­spon­ded, and Hatch chimed in: “I’m glad you said that. At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Hold­er answered that same ques­tion in the same way.”

“By break­ing his prom­ise, he cast doubt about oth­ers who make the same com­mit­ment as you did today,” Hatch said.

Sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans who star­ted the day un­sure about Lynch, however, emerged from the hear­ing Wed­nes­day ap­plaud­ing her per­form­ance.

“She’s been say­ing all the right things. I think she comes from a back­ground of be­ing a pro­sec­utor who was on the front lines, and that gives me some hope that she will be in­de­pend­ent,” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, who en­gaged in a par­tic­u­larly tough line of ques­tion­ing with Lynch, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I’m im­pressed. She has done noth­ing to talk me out of sup­port­ing her.”

Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, a hard-liner who has pledged to re­in­vestig­ate Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion scan­dals such as Fast and Furi­ous, offered care­ful praise for Lynch’s abil­ity to make it through long lines of ques­tion­ing.

“I’m gonna wait and read the whole re­cord, in­clud­ing ana­lys­is of people testi­fy­ing to­mor­row for and against her,” Grass­ley said. “She’s a very good law­yer. She is hand­ling her­self well, but I don’t want to make any fi­nal judg­ment.”

Al­though Lynch en­dured plenty of grilling Wed­nes­day, her tough­er chal­lenge may come Thursday when a series of wit­nesses test­i­fies against her.

The list of wit­nesses looks like a roster of Hold­er’s top crit­ics. At the top of the list: Sharyl At­tkisson, an in­vest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ist who dog­gedly re­por­ted stor­ies about Fast and Furi­ous and is su­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for al­legedly spy­ing on her as she in­vest­ig­ated Hold­er’s role in the gun-walk­ing scan­dal; and Dav­id Clarke, the Mil­wau­kee sher­iff, Second Amend­ment ad­voc­ate, and some­times pun­dit who called on of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Hold­er, to apo­lo­gize in Au­gust for “in­sinu­at­ing that our law-en­force­ment of­ficers across the United States en­gage in some ne­far­i­ous or sys­tem­at­ic and cul­tur­al at­tempts to vi­ol­ate people’s civil rights” as Hold­er tried to nav­ig­ate con­tro­versy in Fer­guson, Mo.

Then there is Cath­er­ine En­gel­brecht, pres­id­ent of True the Vote, who has been an out­spoken op­pon­ent of calls by Hold­er to patch the Vot­ing Rights Act back to­geth­er after the Su­preme Court struck down some key pro­vi­sions.

Throughout the first day of her hear­ing, Lynch’s tone was firm but con­cili­at­ory as she at­temp­ted to nav­ig­ate the tangled polit­ic­al leg­acy Hold­er will be leav­ing at the Justice De­part­ment. Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Conn., said that in dis­cus­sions with his Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues, Lynch’s grace un­der pres­sure had made an im­pres­sion.

“It was about as ac­com­plished and adroit of a wit­ness as I have seen in my four years. … They thought she was dy­nam­ite.” Blu­menth­al said. “The ones I talked to were lean­ing in her fa­vor.”

Of course, there were still some Lynch couldn’t win over.

Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., noted dur­ing the hear­ing he was dis­ap­poin­ted with Lynch’s po­s­i­tion that the pres­id­ent was with­in his leg­al bounds of pro­sec­utori­al dis­cre­tion when he an­nounced he would al­low mil­lions of im­mig­rants to stay in the United States even though they came here il­leg­ally.

“I thought the opin­ion was reas­on­able,” Lynch said dur­ing the hear­ing.

Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, R-Ala., says he has ser­i­ous doubts that Lynch has the abil­ity or the will­ing­ness to block the pres­id­ent and side with Con­gress.

“We’ve heard this be­fore, and we have the most politi­cized De­part­ment of Justice ever,” Ses­sions told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I have not said what I would do, but I am at this point very troubled.”

While Hold­er pushed pro­gress on civil rights, he of­ten moved for­ward as the GOP screeched about over­reach. In 2011, he called the De­fense of Mar­riage Act un­con­sti­tu­tion­al and made it clear he’d no longer de­fend it in the courts. Un­der his com­mand, DOJ chal­lenged a lit­any of voter ID cases and made strides to re­form the crim­in­al justice sys­tem. Hold­er gave speeches de­cry­ing the stark in­equal­ity that ex­ists between blacks and whites who go through the sys­tem and he has pushed to re­store vot­ing rights to former felons. All of that, Ses­sions ar­gued, is an ex­ample of DOJ be­ing used for polit­ic­al pur­poses.

Hold­er’s leg­acy — his com­bat­ive nature in hear­ings, his un­will­ing­ness to turn over doc­u­ments, which landed him in con­tempt of Con­gress in the House — all weighed heav­ily on Lynch’s hear­ing.

Demo­crats as­sailed Re­pub­lic­ans for us­ing the hear­ing to seek re­pu­di­ation of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“The con­firm­a­tion of Amer­ica’s highest-rank­ing law-en­force­ment agent is not the time or place to vent frus­tra­tion,” Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., said at the hear­ing.

Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., said that if any­one had made it clear she was will­ing to as­sert her­self when she needed to against the ad­min­is­tra­tion, it was Lor­etta Lynch.

It was clear, Fein­stein said, that Lynch “was go­ing to be an in­de­pend­ent in­di­vidu­al who was go­ing to be an in­de­pend­ent at­tor­ney gen­er­al.”

“She made the best in­tro­duct­ory re­marks of any pro­spect­ive at­tor­ney gen­er­al I have heard in de­fin­ing pre­cisely what the role is,” Fein­stein said.

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