It’s the first day of Loretta Lynch’s confirmation hearing, and Democrats want to make sure their Republican colleagues don’t make it about something else.
“I hope we all remember that she is the nominee for attorney general,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. “And that’s why I’m focusing on her.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York offered a similar sentiment. “The president’s immigration policies are not seeking confirmation today,” he said. “Loretta Lynch is.”
Leahy, Schumer, and other Democrats knew what to expect from the GOP. Lynch faced tough questions from Republicans on the committee, who wondered whether she would be a stand-in for President Obama’s policies, such as his executive action on immigration, or for the man she hopes to succeed: Eric Holder.
At the start of the hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said that the Justice Department is “deeply politicized” right now. “But that’s what happens when the attorney general of the United States views himself, in his own words, as the president’s ‘wingman,’ ” he said, referring to Holder. “I don’t expect Ms. Lynch and I will agree on every issue. But I, for one, need to be persuaded Ms. Lynch will be an independent attorney general.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wondered whether Lynch would follow in Holder’s footsteps. “Let me for Sen. Schumer’s benefit—you’re not Eric Holder, are you?” he said, drawing laughter from the people in the room.
“No, I’m not,” Lynch said.
Cornyn continued: “But Attorney General Holder’s record is heavy on our minds now. I agree with the chairman about his concerns when the attorney general refers to himself as the president’s wingman, suggesting that he does not exercise independent legal judgment, as the chief law-enforcement officer for the country. You wouldn’t consider yourself to be a political arm of the White House as attorney general, would you?”
“No, senator, that would be an inappropriate use of the—”
“I’m sorry, you’d be willing to tell your friends ‘no’ if, in your judgment, the law required that?” Cornyn said.
“I think I have to be willing to tell not just my friends but colleagues ‘no’ if the law requires it,” Lynch replied. “That would include the president of the United States.” When Cornyn asked how Lynch would be different than Holder, she said, “I will be myself. Loretta Lynch.”
Lynch is looking to offer a fresh start to a GOP-controlled Congress, casting herself as an alternative to Holder, whose liberal policies and outspoken personality have led to dramatic clashes with Republicans, culminating in Holder being the first DOJ head to be held in contempt of Congress. “I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress—a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance,” she said during her opening remarks.
If confirmed, her top priorities, Lynch said, would be strengthening relationships between the public and law enforcement, investigating and prosecuting terrorists, and enhancing the nation’s defenses against cyberattacks.
In his questioning, Grassley wondered whether Lynch believed that Obama has the legal authority to stop deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants. Her answer was a measured, roundabout yes.
“I have had occasion to look at the Office of Legal Counsel opinion through which the Department of Homeland Security sought legal guidance there, as well as some of the letters from constitutional scholars who’ve looked at the similar issue. And certainly it seems to be a reasonable discussion of legal precedent. … I don’t see any reason to doubt the reasonableness of those views,” Lynch said.
However, she said, “I found it interesting, as I was reading the legal counsel opinion that some of the proposals that were set forth, and asked about, the Office of Legal Counsel opinion did not, in fact, have a legal framework. And I don’t believe that those were actually implemented. So I do think it is very important that as the Department of Justice, through any of its agencies, the Office of Legal Counsel, or in a direct conversation with the president, or any other member of the Cabinet, always ensure that they are operating from a position of whether or not there’s a legal framework that supports the requested action.”
Leahy mentioned interrogation tactics in his line of questioning. “The efforts to confront acts of torture carried out in our country’s name—do you agree that waterboarding is torture?”
“Waterboarding is torture, senator,” Lynch replied.
“And thus illegal?” Leahy followed up.
“And thus illegal,” Lynch replied.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., wanted to know whether Lynch would emulate Holder’s close relationship with Obama. “Just so you understand that your role is such that on occasion you have to say no to the person who actually appointed you to the job and who you support?”
“Senator, I do understand that that is, in fact, the role and the responsibility of the attorney general,” Lynch said. “In fact, a necessary obligation on their part.”
On Obama’s new immigration policy, Sessions said, “I understand that you support the executive order. Is that correct?”
“I don’t believe my role at this point is to support or not support it,” Lynch responded. “My review was to see whether or not it did outline a legal framework for some of the actions that were requested. As noted, it indicated there was not a legal framework for other actions that were requested.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked about Lynch’s opinion on the death penalty. “Do you support the death penalty?”
“I believe the death penalty is an effective penalty,” Lynch said. “My office was able to achieve a death verdict there—”
“How about yes?”
“So, we have sought it, yes,” Lynch replied.
Lynch called the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs “constitutional and effective.” She said marijuana is “still a criminal substance under federal law,” despite its legalization in several states. In response to a question from Sessions about Obama’s view of marijuana as a “bad habit and a vice,” Lynch spoke more forcefully.
“I can tell you that not only do I not support legalization of marijuana, it is not the position of the Department of Justice currently to support the legalization nor would it be the position should I become confirmed as attorney general,” she said.
On Wall Street, Lynch said, “No individual is too big to jail.”
Lynch currently serves as the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn. If confirmed, she would be the first black female attorney general.
As lawmakers exited the room for a brief lunch recess, Leahy could be heard on his microphone saying, “I don’t know that I’ve been so moved by any nominee on anything.”
Seven hours into the hearing, Grassley cracked a joke. “I hope when we’re done here that you don’t get this attitude that the way this chaotic place is run, why should you be working with the Congress of the United States? It doesn’t always work this way. Little tongue in cheek.”
“Well, senator, it’s been a privilege to watch the peaceful transfer of power that’s going on this afternoon,” Lynch joked back.
This story has been updated with more information.