Under pressure from lawmakers and the news media, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gathered his top aides last week to deliver a message: He was fine, and they all needed to stay focused and get their work done.
The May 30 session, recounted by two people familiar with the meeting, came as Holder was defending himself as never before in his four years as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer. That day, he also held the first of several meetings with news media leaders on why reporters were targeted in his department’s crackdown on government leaks. By phone, he was seeking to reassure allies in Congress.
“You have a set of issues that have fired up the political opposition, now going along with decisions that have caused deep disquiet among political allies,” said Eric Ueland, a former chief of staff to the Republican leader in the Senate. “If one more thing goes awry, the position becomes harder and harder to defend.”
The question of when Holder will leave the Justice Department has gained steam. Lawmakers and analysts debated the topic on Sunday network political shows and headlines questioned whether he’s become too big a liability for President Barack Obama.
Democrats have publicly stuck with Holder. Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Charles Schumer of New York stood by him during the June 2 talk-show interviews.
Texas Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have both called for his resignation, and Arizona Senator John McCain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Holder needed to ask himself if he “is really able to effectively serve.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is raising money for his re-election based on Holder’s troubles. His campaign is calling on supporters to “fight back” against Holder, who he calls in a May 30 e-mail a “left wing ideologue that bends the rules to get what he wants.”
House Republicans, who have already held Holder in contempt for declining to provide them documents in a botched guns investigation known as Fast and Furious, are now investigating whether he misled Congress about whether the department deliberately targeted journalists.
Peter Kadzik, principal deputy assistant attorney general, in a letter to lawmakers sent yesterday, said that Holder’s testimony “was accurate” and the department never intended to prosecute a Fox News reporter targeted in a search warrant as part of the investigation.
“At no time during the pendency of this matter -- before or after seeking the search warrant -- have prosecutors sought approval to bring criminal charges against the reporter,” Kadzik said.
When asked yesterday if Holder would be asked to leave, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, read aloud a statement given earlier to the New York Times by Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Holder “has the intellect, experience and integrity to efficiently run the Department of Justice,” he said.
Holder, 62, has no immediate plans to depart and plans to continue to push a set of second-term initiatives he laid out earlier this year, said the people familiar with last week’s staff meeting.
Nanda Chitre, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Republican calls for Holder’s dismissal aren’t new. Democrats have voiced concern about his ability to manage the political aspects of the job in the past.
“As a politician, the attorney general’s a pretty good lawyer,” said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, who noted Holder’s perceived disdain for House lawmakers.
The White House has few options but to stick with Holder for now, Galston said. His resignation would require the nomination of a new attorney general at a time when the administration continues to fight for the stalled confirmations of two other Cabinet nominees. Holder’s departure also would give a political victory to Republicans, something the administration has been loath to provide, said Galston, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Holder has shown no sign of capitulation to his Republican critics and his meetings with journalists came at the request of Obama.
“He’s used to being the target of his opponents on Capitol Hill,” said Tracy Schmaler, his former spokeswoman. “It hasn’t stopped him from doing his job before, and I don’t think it’s going to stop him now.”
From his push to try terrorism suspects in federal court instead of a military tribunal, to becoming the first Cabinet official held in contempt by the House for refusing to hand over Fast and Furious documents, Holder has been criticized throughout his more than four years in the position.
Holder, the first black U.S. attorney general, has repeatedly expressed pride in the department’s accomplishments during his tenure. In appearances in front of Congress he touts a bolstered civil rights division that challenged and received favorable judgments in four voting rights cases in 2012.
His social policy moves have included the decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, a law barring gay spouses from claiming federal benefits available to married couples. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The civil rights division’s activities have been a lightning rod for criticism, however, with Republicans seizing on the decision to drop a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party and questioning the challenges of voter-identification laws in states.
The court fight between the Justice Department and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s staff continues over the Fast and Furious documents shielded from view by the Obama administration asserting executive privilege.
Holder has stayed in office for Obama’s second term to pursue initiatives, from curbing gun violence and voting-law revisions to reviewing the statutes guiding mandatory minimum sentences.
Those initiatives, laid out in an April 4 speech in New York, have for now taken a back seat as Holder’s focus has shifted to the review of the guidelines followed by federal prosecutors in cases that involve journalists. The meeting with news organizations on May 30 was the first of a string planned over the coming days. Obama has requested findings by July 12.
Holder has said he acknowledges and will address the concerns raised by subpoenas that led to the seizure of phone records from reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News.
He is recused from the AP investigation because he was interviewed as part of the probe. Deputy Attorney General James Cole approved the seizure of phone records from a portion of two months from the news organization.
Holder has told media organizations he would consider tightening the rules on when and how federal investigators may seize telephone records to identify reporters’ confidential sources.
The difficulty he faces is in walking the line between press freedom and national security, said Schmaler, the former spokeswoman.
“The challenge and the goal here is to strike the right balance,” said Schmaler, who left the department in March for ASGK Public Strategies. “It’s very hard to do in this climate, where the political rhetoric is so hot.”
Under Obama and Holder, the Justice Department has prosecuted more government officials for alleged news leaks using the World War I-era Espionage Act than all prior attorneys general combined.
Holder and Obama have both defended the investigations of the leaks, which they say endangered American lives. The attorney general spent much of a May 15 House Judiciary Committee hearing sparring with lawmakers about the purpose of the probes.
It was during that hearing where he reignited a war of words with Republicans, at one point telling Issa, a California Republican, that his actions were “inappropriate and too consistent with the way you conduct yourself as a member of Congress.”
“It is unacceptable,” Holder said during the exchange. “It is shameful.”
Ueland, now a vice president at the Duberstein Group, said working with Congress, even with the partisan tensions, has become more important as the pressure has increased. Whether Holder is willing to embrace that, even amid the repeated attacks, will become clear sooner rather than later. He testifies again in front of Congress on June 6.