A whopping 31 congressional Republicans have already announced they won’t seek re-election in 2018 — understandably so, because they don’t want to be burned by the billowing Trumpster fire. And it is my sincerest giddiest pleasure to announce that the newest quitter is Darrell Issa.
Showboats and buffoons have long festooned the halls of Congress, but Issa deserves a special sendoff, because, let’s face it, we could use a few good laughs. His retirement remarks yesterday were amusing — “I’m looking forward to another chapter in my life,” whereas the truth is that he’s terrified of drowning in a blue tsunami — but for sheer funniness, we need to recap his tenure as a crackpot sleuth of nonexistent scandals.
Are you familiar with the incompetent gumshoe Inspector Clouseau? Issa made Clouseau look like Jack Reacher.
As the Republican chairman on the House Oversight Committee, Issa starred in several infamous farces. For instance, he was convinced — and remained steadfastly convinced, despite a dearth of evidence — that President Obama was using the IRS to harass conservative tea-party groups. In the spring of ’13, before he had conducted any interviews with IRS employees, he publicly rendered a guilty verdict: “This was the targeting of the president’s political enemies.” He said that IRS workers in the Cincinnati office “were directly ordered from Washington … and we’re getting to proving it.”
He got to prove nothing. His own committee staff subsequently interviewed the Cincinnati IRS manager, who said there was no partisan conspiracy, just bureaucratic bumbling. Issa refused to share that news with the public, so the testimony was leaked without his consent.
Issa’s committee staffers asked the IRS manager whether “the decision to screen and centralize the review of tea party cases” was a White House attempt to “target the president’s political enemies.” The manager said no. The staffers decided to follow up, just to make sure.
House Oversight Committee: Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to screen tea party cases?
IRS guy: I have no reason to believe that.
House Oversight Committee: Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to centralize the review of tea party cases?
IRS guy: I have no reason to believe that.
House Oversight Committee: Are you aware of any political motivations behind the screening, centralizing and development of tea party cases?
IRS guy: I’m not aware of that.
Ready for the fun part?
House Oversight Committee: What’s your party affiliation?
IRS guy: I’m a conservative Republican.
Issa, confronted with this leaked testimony, was asked whether he wished to withdraw his verdict that Obama was guilty. He said no. He said that the IRS manager “did not provide anything enlightening.”
Issa had the same ‘tude about Benghazi. Obama and Hillary were guilty of covering up conspiratorial wrongdoing no matter how many Republican congressional panels found nothing to substantiate that verdict. The Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee — they all found nothing. And Issa’s Benghazi-hunting House Oversight Committee found nothing.
The funniest moment was in 2013, when Issa refused to permit Thomas Pickering to testify in a public session. Pickering had major creds — he had co-conducted an accountability review of what had happened in Benghazi; he had been a three-time ambassador under Ronald Reagan — but Issa said Pickering shouldn’t testify because “we don’t want to have some kind of staged show.” So Pickering went public to the press and said that Issa’s sleuthing was farcical: “The notion of a, quote, ‘coverup’ has all the elements of Pulitzer Prize fiction.”
Yup, Issa was a font of fake news long before Trump showed up.
House Speaker John Boehner, dissatisfied with Issa’s failure to find a smoking gun, created a Benghazi Special Committee and gave the job to Trey Gowdy. Which led to another funny episode, in 2015. A former Hillary aide was giving Gowdy a deposition when Issa tried to crash the session. He lasted one minute. Gowdy stopped the deposition and threw Issa out of the room. Committee staffers laughed about it; one reportedly said, “It’s funny, because that’s so Issa.”
But maybe it’s an episode in 2007 that really delivers the funny.
A House committee was conducting a probe of Blackwater, the mercenary group that had killed unarmed civilians in Iraq. Issa, a Republican member of the committee, wanted everyone to know that even though Blackwater had profited greatly from the Iraq war (its mercenaries were paid a lot more than U.S. soldiers), it had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that CEO Erik Prince was a Republican with strong ties to the Republicans who were prosecuting the war. Nobody on the committee had brought up Prince’s political affiliation, until Issa raised it in order to deny it.
Issa: Let’s go to one area that hasn’t been discussed …. Is your sister’s name Betsy DeVos?
Prince: Yes it is.
Issa: And was she a former Michigan Republican party chairwoman?
Prince: Yes she was.
Issa: Raised a lot of money for President Bush?
Prince: Could easily be.
Issa: Went to the Republican conventions in 2000 and 2004?
Prince: I would imagine.
Issa: Isn’t it true that your family, at least that part of the family, are very well-known Republicans?
Issa: Wouldn’t it be fair to say that your company is easily identified as a Republican-leaning company?
Prince: Blackwater is not a partisan company.
Issa: I think you’re exactly right …. I would hope that this committee and the public takes note that labeling a company as ‘Republican’ because of family members is inappropriate, and I would hope that we not do it again.
Whereupon committee chairman Henry Waxman delivered the punch line: “Well, the only one who has done it is you.” According to news accounts, there was “laughter in the room.”
For sheer fun, Issa will be greatly missed. But we’ll always have the memories.