At the commencement of the Senate's confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), members of the Senate Judicial Committee provided opening statements about the role of the Attorney General of the United States and praised Sessions' record as a public servant.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) reminded Sessions and America that the Attorney General must enforce every law, regardless of the nation's top law enforcement official's views on those laws:
“He must ensure that the law and the constitution come first and foremost, period.”
While it's absolutely imperative that Sessions uphold the rule of law if he's confirmed, that charge is a little hypocritical as President Obama's Attorney Generals ignored laws that went against the Obama Administration's agenda.
Here are seven times Obama's Attorney Generals side-stepped the law.
1. Fast And Furious Scandal And Its Cover-Up
On December 14, 2010, border patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered while performing his duties along the Southern border. Weapons found near the crime scene were linked to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms' (ATF) gun-walking program 'Fast and Furious.'
Despite knowing about the illegal operation for almost a year, Attorney General Eric Holder testified that in May 2011, that he had only learned about the operation a few weeks before the hearing. However, memos discovered later in the investigation showed that Holder lied about when he knew about the operation.
Holder's actions during the subsequent hearings appeared to show that he attempted to cover-up the 'Fast and Furious' program. However, President Obama used executive privilege, allowing Holder to withhold Department of Justice documents regarding 'Fast and Furious,' which Congress requested.
2. DOJ Must Defend The Laws Unless “There Is No Basis For The Statute”
Under fire for appearing to only enforce laws that support the administration's agenda, Holder told the House Judiciary Committee that the DOJ must uphold the law unless the agency concludes that there “is no basis for the statute,” Holder added:
“There is a vast amount of discretion that a president has — and, more specifically, that an attorney general has.”
While that may be true, it goes against the Democrats' reminder that the Attorney General has to uphold every law. Regardless of how they feel about it.
3. DOJ Concluded IRS Scrutiny Of Tea Party Groups Wasn't Politically Motivated, Despite Evidence To The Contrary
On October 23, 2015, the Department of Justice announced that it would not bring charges against Lois Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official who was at the center of the conservative targeting controversy.
The IRS admitted to inappropriately targeting groups with the words “patriot” or “tea party” in their names for increased scrutiny of their tax-exempt applications.
Lerner, who oversaw the tax-exempt section of the IRS, denied that the targeting was politically motivated and DOJ announced that it concluded the IRS's actions were not politically motivated. In a letter to Congress, Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik said:
We found no evidence that any IRS official acted based on political, discriminatory, corrupt, or other inappropriate motives that would support a criminal prosecution.”
Republicans blasted the IRS when it was discovered that 24,000 of Lerner's emails were lost and could not be recovered.
4. On Refusal To Prosecute Hillary Clinton For Sending Classified Info via Private Email Server
On July 5, 2016, FBI Director James Comey announced that it would not bring charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. During his statement, Comey said the FBI found thousands of work-related emails on Clinton's server, some of which contained classified information and that it was “possible” that foreign entities accessed the server.
Critics of the decision noted the Department of Justice's decision to charge General David Petraeus with one count of removing and retaining classified information during his time as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Questions arose about the independence of the FBI's investigation after it was reported that former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch met in private for roughly 30 minutes in the waning days of the investigation.
Despite the optics that the investigation was rigged, Lynch refused to recuse herself from the investigation when she said she would accept the FBI's decision.
5. “Over Collection” Of Associated Press Phone Records
In connection with an extensive leak investigation, the Department of Justice issued several subpoenas for the AP's phone records.
The DOJ was investigating how the news outlet acquired information detailing how the CIA foiled a bomb plot the previous year. The subpoenas provided DOJ with the work, home, and cellular phone records of AP Reporters.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP President Gary Pruitt wrote:
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP.”
Pruitt added that the phone records provided information that the government has "no conceivable right to know.”
The records allowed the government to trace which government workers were providing reporters with information in an effort to crack down on leaks. However, reporters argued such measures make it much hard to obtain sensitive information if sources are worried about being prosecuted by the government.
6. Fox News Reporter James Rosen Labeled A “Co-Conspirator” In A Leak Case
In another leak investigation, the Department of Justice accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of soliciting classified information.
The investigation focused on former State Department employee Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who was accused of providing Rosen classified information about North Korea just hours after it was released to intelligence officials.
DOJ officials sought access to Rosen's email account and labeled him a “co-conspirator” in the leak of classified information.
While law enforcement officials said Rosen solicited the information and therefore broke the law, First Amendment advocates argue that Rosen was simply doing his job by seeking out information.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told The Washington Post, "Asking for information has never been deemed a crime.”
7. Bias Against White Victims In A Voter Intimidation Case In Philadelphia
A Politico report looked into the DOJ's investigation of a voter intimidation case in Philadelphia involving the New Black Panthers Party.
Department of Justice Prosecutor Christopher Coates told a U.S. Civil Rights Commission the DOJ downgraded the case because officials discouraged “race neutral” enforcement of civil rights laws. “They have not pursued the goal of equal protection for all,” he added.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler decried the Civil Rights Commission's investigation of the way DOJ handled the voter intimidation case:
The Department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved. We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation"
After roughly 8 years of Attorney Generals ignoring or side-stepping the law, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) wrote in an op-ed that Sessions would bring some serious change to the DOJ:
He's a law-and-order devotee about to enter a lawless DOJ. If I were them — if I wanted to keep DOJ as a partisan agency unbound by law — I'd be scared, too."
If the statements by Republicans about Sessions' dedication to the law are any indication of how he would serve as Attorney General, it's probably safe to say “there's a new sheriff in town.”