Officials from the Obama administration's Department of Justice on Thursday struggled to answer seemingly simple questions from Republicans about the immigration crisis on the southern U.S. border and the investigation into the IRS targeting scandal.
In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to assess the situation at the border. One of the questions that worries Republicans is how many of the roughly 60,000 children who have crossed this year might eventually gain asylum in the United States.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, tried but failed to get a Justice Department official to estimate how many border children will ultimately gain asylum in the United States. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) asked Bruce Swartz, a deputy assistant attorney general at Justice, for an estimate of how many of the kids might ultimately find asylum.
"I think that that's a question that we are examining, and will have to be developed…" Swartz started. He was quickly interrupted by Corker, who asked for an estimate.
"I think that's a question that we would have to analyze and respond to you in writing as to a percentage in that context," Swarz said.
Corker tried several more times, but Swartz continued to say he had no estimate.
"Mr. Swartz, you're not going to be a very good witness if you won't answer questions," Corker said. Swartz tried again a few times, but had nothing.
That exchange left a frustrated Corker to say he has little confidence in officials if they don't have any basic estimates on how many kids might gain asylum.
"It doesn't give me a lot of faith in the public officials who are dealing with this issue if they don't have some kind of gut instinct as to the number of people who are coming into this country that might actually really need asylum," he said. "That doesn't give me a very good sense of you having a handle on the situation."
Moments later, Thomas Shannon Jr., a counselor from the State Department, cited a UN study that said as many as 58 percent of the child immigrants "could" be able to raise legitimate asylum claims. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) added that she also believes that about 50 percent of the children might be able to claim asylum.
Corker indicated he may not be in favor of approving President Barack Obama's $3.7 billion request for border funding when officials are lacking basic information about the problem.
"Typically when people ask for an appropriation do deal with an issue, they have a sense of the magnitude of the problem in each category that we're trying to solve," he said.
Over in the House, Deputy Attorney General James Cole testified on the ongoing Justice investigation into the IRS targeting scandal.
Many Republicans are worried that President Barack Obama has signaled to Justice that it should not take any steps against the IRS, by saying there's not a "smidgen" of corruption at the tax collection agency.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked Cole if he would still be investigating the IRS if Obama's comment was correct.
"Would you agree that it would be wrong to continue an investigation for any length of time if there's isn't a smidgen of evidence of wrongdoing?" Issa asked. But Cole declined to answer directly, and instead offered variations on the idea that the Justice Department will continue investigating until the investigation is over.
"There has to be a belief that there is still evidence that is necessary to be looked at to determine whether or not a criminal statute has been violated," Cole said at one point.
"I really appreciate you're dodging on behalf of decorum, but my question needs to be answered," Issa pressed.
"You cannot spend taxpayer dollars if you do not have a belief that it's going to lead to a crime. That would be a frivolous investigation at some point, wouldn't it?"
"You start investigations based on…"
"No no, that was a yes or no, General Cole, it really is," Issa interrupted.
Eventually Cole said, "Unfortunately, it's not quite a yes or no."
"Oh, yes it is, and we're going to have this conversation," he said. "Would you continue to take people's time, money, force them to get attorneys, investigate, subpoena, grab information, interview people… would you do that if you did not belief that there was a possibility of a crime and one that you thought worth investigating? Would you do that?"
"Can I give you my answer and then you can always follow up…?"
Issa then warned Cole not to be a bad witness. "Your boss, the Attorney General, is a bad witness. Please don't be a bad witness," he said.
"I'm trying not to be a bad witness," Cole answered.