Darrell Issa Fashions Crown Jewel to Investigate White House

Image credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

At the end of 2010, as it appeared he would be blessed with the new chairmanship of Congress's oversight panel, Rep. Darrell Issa, said President Obama needed to "start playing by the rules."

With his newfound power of subpoena, Issa was about to investigate the Obama administration to get to the truth.

Only the narrative didn't go as planned. Hearings - on Solyndra, Fannie Mae, the FDA and more - led to no major revelations, and Issa himself found his office squirming in minor controversies. He fired his spokesman, Kurt Bardella, for sharing emails with a reporter for The New York Times, an embarrassing fiasco that eclipsed Issa's charge on investigations.

He locked horns with The Times again, after the paper reported that Issa has used his power in Congress to earmark money for projects near his personal business in California. The headline was, "A Businessman in Congress Helps His District and Himself." (After Issa's office objected repeatedly and publicly, the paper made four corrections.)

Issa's office spent heavy bandwidth fighting back at The Times, dissecting it paragraph by paragraph, charging that it contained falsities, and even going after the tactics of the reporter, Eric Lichtblau.

But the arc of Issa's rise to the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform might now be bending toward Obama for real, and this time it might just stick. It was only two months ago that Issa basked in the spotlight as he grilled officials at the General Services Administration who had spent lavishly on a conference in Las Vegas. Now, Issa, a Republican, is in the middle of a headline-grabbing standoff with Obama that has all the trappings of a good story: a botched gun operation in Mexico, an attorney general in contempt, the use of executive privilege to shield documents from Congress and allegations of a cover-up.

This is the would-be scandal that Issa was hoping for, and with about four months until the election, politics and a summer likely to be otherwise soft on news should guarantee him the attention he wants.

The "Fast & Furious" operation had been going on since 2009, and Issa has been investigating it for a year and a half, and recently he has demanded that the Justice Department turn over documents from its internal investigation into the program. Issa took the showdown to the next stage today by writing an open letter to Obama challenging his use of executive privilege. He wrote that executive privilege "is only applicable with respect to documents and communications that implicate the confidentiality of the President's decision-making process, defined as those documents and communications to and from the president and his most senior advisers."

"Either you or your most senior advisers were involved in managing Operation Fast & Furious and the fallout from it, including the false February 4, 2011 letter provided by the Attorney General to the Committee, or, you are asserting a Presidential power that you know to be unjustified solely for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation," he wrote.

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The White House has dismissed Issa's letter as "absurd" and maintains that Obama didn't know about the bungled operation.

"Our position is consistent with Executive Branch legal precedent for the past three decades spanning Administrations of both parties, and dating back to President Reagan's Department of Justice," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. "The Courts have routinely considered deliberative process privilege claims and affirmed the right of the executive branch to invoke the privilege even when White House documents are not involved."

Two high-profile experts on executive privilege argue that Issa is right, that Obama isn't using his presidential power appropriately. Mark Rozell and Mitchel Sollenberger, two professors who have long studied the executive branch, wrote that wiretaps showing top-level Justice Department officials having knowledge of the gun operation casts the White House in a suspicious light.

"A claim of executive privilege at this moment looks like the administration has something to hide, fueling suspicions rather than getting to the bottom of the matter," they said. "The fact is that Congress has a right to investigate, and questions about government involvement in a failed operation will persist until the full story is told. That cannot happen if the executive branch refuses to show documents that are directly germane to the investigation."

Issa, 58, appears to revel in the attention when he gets a good hook, but Republicans might not have the last laugh even if Eric Holder is held in contempt of Congress and Obama is drawn into the fiasco. Right now, the best weapon Mitt Romney has in his arsenal is the economy. After three years, it's still bad, and Obama hasn't fixed it. For every day that the big headline is about Fast & Furious instead of the economy, Romney misses an opportunity.

And for all that Obama mocks Romney - outsourcing vs. "offshoring," the out-of-touch comments - you can bet that he would much rather run against House Republicans. Congress' approval rating is dismal, and Romney's will never stoop that low. A fight against Congress is an easy fight to win in the public eye.

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