James Cole, the man whom President Barack Obama announced yesterday will be given a recess appoint to the Justice Department’s No. 2 position, is quickly emerging as a top target of Republican members of Congress due to his support for the use of civilian courts in terrorism trials.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder and DOJ staffers are gearing up for onslaught of criticism from the GOP on political hot topics like terrorism, immigration and what Holder called a “made-up controversy” over the department’s handling of a two-year-old voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party.
Republicans have attacked Cole over the views he expressed in a 2002 editorial I dug up back in June in which he wrote that the attorney general “is not a member of the military fighting a war — he is a prosecutor fighting crime.”
Cole’s view that “the Sept. 11 attacks were criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population” doesn’t sit well with the GOP. The soon-to-be deputy attorney general wrote that the country “has faced many forms of devastating crime, including the scourge of the drug trade, the reign of organized crime, and countless acts of rape, child abuse, and murder. The acts of Sept. 11 were horrible, but so are these other things.”
Rep. Pete King (R-NY) said in a statement that Cole “may be one of the worst appointments by President Obama during his presidency.” King said he found it “absolutely shocking that President Obama would appoint someone who has diminished the 9/11 terrorist attacks by comparing them to the drug trade and who believes that a civilian courtroom is the appropriate venue for 9/11 trials.”
Senate Republicans, lead by Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions, held up requests for debate and a vote on Cole, whose nomination has been pending longer than any other Deputy Attorney General nominee in recent history — passing the record set back in the Reagan era.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made Cole’s confirmation a priority, but no path to a confirmation vote could be agreed upon, a senior Democratic aide told TPM.
“The delays in considering his nomination were unnecessary and wrong,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “I am glad that he will now finally begin this important work to protect the American people,” Leahy said, adding that he believes Cole would have been confirmed if his nomination was given an up-or-down vote.
But since Obama announced his intention to appoint Cole last night plenty of other Republicans, including former Ambassador John Bolton, have joined in on criticism of Cole.
“One would have thought after two years of thwarting terrorist attacks around the world, the administration would have gotten the point that it is a war,” Bolton told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in an interview Thursday afternoon.
News of Cole’s nomination first emerged back in April. Cole, who has been a friend and poker buddy to Holder since they worked together in DOJ’s Public Integrity Section decades ago, also faced criticism for his representation of a Saudi Arabian official in litigation brought by family members of some Sept. 11 victims and questions from critics like Sessions over his role as an independent monitor of AIG. A spokesman for Sessions did not respond to a request for comment.
A Justice Department spokeswoman had no comment yesterday, and said she couldn’t comment on the plans of current Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, who took over on a temporary basis after former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden resigned last December following a rocky relationship with Holder.
If Cole is given a recess appointment before the start of the next session of Congress, his term will last until the end of 2011. If he were appointed during a Congressional recess in January, his term could last until the end of 2012. But that could allow Republicans the ability to gum up the appointment by delaying recess.
As it stands now, the White House intends to renominate Cole in January, which would make his position permanent if he was confirmed by the Senate.
Holder, meanwhile, sat down with Charlie Savage of the New York Times to talk about the opposition he’ll be facing from incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). Holder told reporters earlier this month that he hoped Smith’s committee would “focus on things that are not going to be politically attractive but will be of substance.”
Asked about the potential of oversight hearings and subpoenas being issued as part of an investigation into the DOJ’s handling of the voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party, Holder told the newspaper that “there is no ‘there’ there.”
“The notion that this made-up controversy leads to a belief that this Justice Department is not color-blind in enforcement of civil rights laws is simply not supported by the facts,” Holder said. “All I have on my side with regard to that is the facts and the law.”
Meanwhile, incoming House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton announced that Marty Dannenfelser, currently staff director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is joining his staff as senior advisor for health policy and coalitions. Dannenfelser lead the Commission during its lengthy probe of the New Black Panther Party case and looked into who leaked a draft of the report to TPM.
Late Update: Marcus Baram of the Huffington Post interviewed several former AIG employees a few weeks back who were critical of Cole’s oversight of AIG, during which the firm “dangerously ramped up its sale of credit-default swaps (essentially insurance) to investment banks, essentially betting big that the housing market wouldn’t collapse.”
“It was either incompetence, negligence or fraud and I have nothing to indicate that it was fraud,” says the ex-staffer.
Another former staffer was also encouraged at first by Cole’s arrival but grew quickly disillusioned. “He was our last, great hope — if he had done his job, maybe he couldn’t have stopped the meltdown but at least he would have been able to raise the alarms and get some attention to what was happening.”