Why the White House Will Miss Eric Holder

Holder was a central figure in President Barack Obama's orbit.
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The betting pool in Washington on when Attorney General Eric Holder would step down started only about a month into President Barack Obama's time in office. It seemed to grow by the year, with a botched attempt to bring terror trials to New York, regular run-ins with the White House and even a contempt vote in the U.S. House -- a first for a cabinet official.

Yet Holder played an important -- and, his allies would say, underrated -- role in Obama's orbit (aside from the fact their wives are close friends and they often vacationed together). Some of Holder's closest current and former aides referred to their boss as "the heat shield" -- the guy who took the worst from Republicans, the press, the black community and let Obama skate free. There's a mix of sarcasm, frustration with the White House and truth to the nickname. Here's why:

1. He acted as Obama's proxy on race issues

Holder was always seen as the administration official who could -- and would -- go places Obama either couldn't or didn't want to go when race was an issue. As the nation's first black attorney general, Holder was often an outlet for black leaders who were frustrated with the White House, aides say. He would give fired-up speeches at events like the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network's annual convention. He was the first to register strong problems with the shooting of a Florida teenager under what is known as ``Stand Your Ground'' laws. Holder was the first to really attack voter identification laws pursued by Republican state legislatures around the country, at one point in 2012 calling them the ``poll taxes'' of this generation. That has now become a central campaign issue for Democrats nationwide. 

Obama, with a candid and unscripted statement last year on the death of that Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, and administrative initiatives like ``My Brother's Keeper,'' has started to shed that reluctance in his second term. But when it came to the police shooting of a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, Holder was Obama's point man every step of the way.

Aides say Holder's legacy -- at least the one he wants -- is one that is focused on civil rights, extending not just to race, but also to LGBT issues. But his impact on race issues is real, even though much of it was considered partisan and activist (the latter charge being something he would happily acknowledge.) 

 2. He was a GOP lightning rod

Eric Holder's appearances before congressional committees were popcorn-worthy. In every appearance, Republicans attacked. Some attacked on civil rights issues, some on national security,  but all attacked on what they saw as a more central role in a botched gun operation known as Fast and Furious than Holder was willing to admit. He became enemy No. 1 for Republicans, especially in the House. For four years he held his tongue and took it, even though aides said he was enraged behind closed doors.

But every time he was on Capitol Hill for a roasting, that was another day Republicans weren't focused on Obama. It may seem like a small thing, but Democrats saw Holder as a way for Republicans to let off steam. Did it reduce their dislike for Obama? No. But it gave them another way to express it publicly. 

Starting in the second term, Holder's tone at hearings changed. He was combative. He challenged lawmakers. He finally let them know what he really thought about the decision by Republicans -- and some Democrats -- to vote to hold him in contempt:

3. He pushed through terror prosecutions

Holder's track record on terrorism got off to an inauspicious start. There was the nearly disastrous ``underwear bomber'' attack on Christmas of 2009. There was the multi-year botched effort to move al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, from Guantanamo Bay and into a civilian court trial in New York that started in his first year as well.

Yet five years later, Holder's prosecutors have moved a series of alleged terrorists through the civilian court system. Just this week, Osama bin Laden's former spokesman, Sulaiaman Abu Ghayth, was sentenced to life in prison a little more than 18 months after he was taken into U.S. custody. The Justice Department pursued that conviction through Article Three, or civilian, court. Meanwhile KSM's military trial at Guantanamo still hasn't made any significant progress forward, nor have the cases against several of his fellow inmates. 

There's a palpable sense of vindication inside Holder's team as they look at the current landscape. Here's what Holder told me during a 2012 interview in the conference room next to his fifth floor office when I asked about the KSM case:

“History has shown that the decision that I made was right. The Article Three system could have handled that case, that we wouldn't have had to close down half of Manhattan, it would not have cost $200 million a year, if we had kept that case in the Article Three system, KSM and co-conspirators would probably be on death row right now, you know? Just looking at that in isolation, that was the right decision.”

Then you have the rise of the Islamic State. Holder has been outspoken on the threat posed by the group for months. He went out of his way in July to castigate European allies for their reluctance to address threats coming from foreign fighters in Syria. 

4. He was tough on the press

The Obama administration's view on press freedom is, shall we say, not appreciated by the press. The issue boiled over when it became clear Justice Department officials signed off on searches of the phone records of Associated Press journalists during leak investigations.

The reaction was swift and harsh, and Holder was tasked with dealing an angry and rightfully suspicious media. 

Holder met repeatedly with press representatives in off-the-record sessions, sessions that, according to participants in many of the meetings, generally ended positively. While the Attorney General didn't agree with everything the media representatives wanted, he was willing to listen, participants said. That was often more than the White House would offer.

Holder announced revisions to the guidelines prosecutors would use in investigations involving journalists, imposing a higher burden for the approval of search warrants and subpoenas directed at the news media. It was not the perfect solution from the media's perspective. But the decision was considered a good step. 

5. He won huge settlements from Wall Street (eventually)

The inability of Holder's Justice Department to bring criminal charges against Wall Street banks and their top executives in the wake of the financial crisis had been seen as a glaring weakness before 2013. It frustrated the White House during the 2012 campaign and seemingly baffled Holder during congressional testimony on the issue.

But behind a few creative U.S. attorneys, Holder in the last year has utilized a mechanism that has enabled his department to secure billions in settlements with Wall Street's biggest actors. In non-financial crisis cases like the rigging of interest rates, charges against individuals have been brought and more, according to people within the department, are on the way. 

Perhaps most importantly, Holder gave a speech last week acknowledging that his department simply didn't have the tools to do the job in the wake of the financial crisis. He finally admitted that his prosecutors were unable to seize enough evidence to bring cases. He called for Congress to enact a law to increase rewards for whistleblowers and asked for more FBI agents with the type of expertise needed to dig into white-collar crime.

Does it wipe the Justice Department's record of inaction clean? Of course not. But in the last year Holder and his team have really taken a shot at Wall Street. And that has been very helpful to the White House, even if only on the periphery. It echoes similar issues throughout Holder's time in the position. His record has plenty of blemishes -- something members of both parties will readily acknowledge. But in many ways he was one of the best allies the White House had, even as his office and the West Wing often clashed. 

6. He stayed around until the right moment

After months of discussing it off and on with Obama, Holder finally made the decision to leave and told the president on Labor Day weekend, according to a senior aide. He will stay until his replacement is confirmed, which, due to a change in Senate rules that allows Democrats to move nominees through with only 51 votes, may not take as long as some would think.

Last July, Glenn Thrush of POLITICO had a deeply reported piece on Holder that started with the sentence “Why the hell is Eric Holder still around?” Here's why: the president never asked him to leave. Odd as it may seem amid all of the controversy seemed to follow him, Holder never lost the president's confidence. It may have wavered, but it never left. Until Thursday, neither did Holder.