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Jonathan Alter Is Disturbed By What Obama’s Justice Department And IRS Are Doing

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

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HH: Joined now by Jonathan Alter, Bloomberg View columnist and biographer of both President Obama and FDR. Jonathan, welcome, thanks for joining me.

JA: My pleasure, Hugh.

HH: What is your reaction to the snooping of James Rosen of the Fox News Channel?

JA: I don’t like it one bit. I just, this and the AP story disturb me, and I think my reaction is not just as a result of being a journalist. I don’t think it’s the way to operate in a democratic society.

HH: Ryan Lizza has a post over at the New Yorker with the number and extent of the snooping, and the phone records seized. Have you had a chance to read that, yet?

JA: I have not, yet, no.

HH: And it’s also been revealed, stunningly, that they tapped his parents. They went after his, I don’t want to say tapped, that’s imperfect. They went after his parents’ phone records, Jonathan Alter. So what is the President’s charge at this point from someone who admires him? What do you want to see him do?

JA: Well, you know, I would actually like to see him apologize to journalists who have had their work and their privacy, and their…you know, compromised. You know, the administration says well, we’re going after the leakers, and in order to get them, and get those who are jeopardizing our national security, we have to go after the reporters, too. And this is what all administrations say when it comes to national security. But this administration has been especially aggressive on it. and I know they don’t want to intervene in any of these cases, and I know that a lot of people don’t think that the President should ever apologize for anything. That was Mitt Romney’s view. But I just take a different view. I think if you cross certain lines the way this has, you should own up to it and say it wasn’t the right thing to do. I mean, I don’t think it’s an impeachable offense. You know, I don’t think it’s going to lead to the biggest scandal since Watergate. But I do think it was the wrong way to go about things, and it’s disturbing.

HH: Now Jonathan, we have got the AP story, and we have the Rosen story. There is a, Sharyl Attkisson today theorizing her computer has been vandalized. Should the Department of Justice make a full and complete account of all reporters who have been surveilled to date by this administration?

JA: I think that would be a good start.

HH: And what did you make of Attorney General Holder’s ‘I’m recused, but it’s not in writing, and I can’t remember when it happened?’

JA: I thought, and I wrote, that his appearance last week was, in front of the press, was, I think I used the word pathetic. And one of the things that I didn’t like about it especially was that he said that every avenue had been exhausted before the AP reporters were snooped on. But people who know the Justice Department and know their rules, which are quite narrow, suggest that there were a number of other things that could have been and should have been done first. Now it should be said that there is no indication that any of that broke the law. But it did, because the Patriot Act and other laws give the Justice Department wide discretion to do this kind of thing. But it did, according to some accounts of lawyers with familiarity with the Justice Department, it did violate the Justice Department’s own rules. And so when Eric Holder said that he didn’t, that all other avenues had been exhausted, that was not accurate.

HH: You know, Jonathan, what’s shocking, I was a special assistant to William French Smith, and for a brief time, to Ed Meese. No one ever recused themselves except in writing, with formality, for a variety of reasons having to do with effective law enforcement in protecting both the recused party and those who are sending information forward. It’s shockingly bad administration at the Department of Justice. Do you think Holder can stay on as Attorney General?

JA: Well, I agree with you that I think that that should have been in writing, and you know, whether somebody interviewed, I guess they interviewed 500 people in this leak investigation, and whether he should have recused himself, needed to recuse himself, is something I leave to the lawyers. But whatever people say about whether he should resign or how long he can last, it seems unlikely to me that the President will ask for his resignation. So we have to kind of deal with the situation as it is, and one thing we know about this President is that a big drumbeat for him to get rid of Holder is the surest way that Holder will remain on the job.

HH: So you have quite a lot of access to the Obama administration. Your book was quite a revealing book and had a lot of sources. Do you think you’re on some Department of Justice snoop list anywhere, Jonathan Alter?

JA: Yeah, that’s a good question. I haven’t had any indication of that. You know, I have a new book that’s coming out in two weeks, two weeks from today. It’s called The Center Holds: Obama And His Enemies. And it is available for preorder right now, and it’s both the first book out about the 2012 campaign, and also another look at the way this President operates. And I interviewed 200 people for this book as well, although I had, you know, more problems in dealing with the White House than I did on my earlier book.

HH: Well, I’m looking for it. I haven’t got it, yet. I will read it, and of course, we’ll have one of our long conversations.

JA: Yeah.

HH: But I, is Lois Lerner’s name in there, because she obviously was in charge of one enemies list.

JA: You know, Lois Lerner is not in there, but I’ll tell you what is in there, and you know, is that connected to this IRS story, which I think is, it’s just wrong and disturbing, or for the Tea Party to be singled out, but it’s also wrong for Bill Burton on the left, or Karl Rove on the right, to make filings to the IRS, which they did, saying that their organizations were not predominantly engaged in political activity. That is, and that’s a quote from Karl Rove, and Burton said the same thing on the liberal side. That’s just flatly untrue. So you know, you have these organizations that are getting these tax exemptions, and they don’t deserve them, because they’re engaged in politics, not social welfare.

HH: But Jonathan, don’t go all Rabbi Korff on me here. You can’t become the President’s defender.

JA: I’m not becoming, now come on, now, that’s just sliming me, Hugh.

HH: I’m just joking, Jon.

JA: You know…

HH: You’re getting close.

JA: No, I’m not.

HH: You can’t go over the edge here.

JA: No, I’m not. Now think about this. I’m not minimizing this scandal. I think it’s wrong, and I think the heads that have rolled should be just the beginning. There should be more heads that roll. But it’s not right to claim that your organization is not engaged in politics when it is.

HH: But that’s completely independent…

JA: And that is not immaterial to this conversation, Hugh. You know that.

HH: But moving the focus off of the President and his men…

JA: No, it isn’t, and that’s not moving, now come on, Hugh.

HH: And his enemies list.

JA: You like to look, you like to take a sophisticated look at the context of a story. Both things can be true. The President and his administration could have erred, did err grievously in singling out people on one side of the spectrum and not investigating liberal groups. But none of these groups on either side deserve these exemptions.

HH: But Jonathan, I am worried as one of your fellow journalists about what this administration has done to people in our profession, which is unprecedented, and beyond anything that Nixon’s Department of Justice did. But I want Obama and his enemies as soon as you can get it to me, because we need to have a long chat about that list with Jonathan Alter of Bloomberg. The new book coming out, you can preorder it at Amazon.

End of interview.

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