Congressional Republicans have turned Attorney General Eric Holder into a symbol of Obama administration malfeasance, and the GOP-controlled House is considering charging him with contempt of Congress, arguing the Department of Justice has not turned over enough documents about the botched “Fast and Furious” program that was designed to stop gun trafficking. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn called Tuesday for Holder to step down from his post.
But Holder, who has been a lightening rod in the administration since he declared the U.S. was a “nation of cowards” on racial issues three years ago, is likely to survive this latest challenge, as he has weathered those throughout his tenure.
1. The “Fast and Furious” debate is highly partisan
Republicans, particularly in the House, say Holder and the Justice Department are withholding documents about “Operation Fast and Furious,” a gun-trafficking program that was operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is overseen by the Justice Department. In the program, ATF agents used a tactic known as “gun-walking,” in which, rather than immediately seizing guns that are illegally held or sold, they allowed them to be kept on the streets, hoping to build a bigger gun-trafficking case.
In “Fast and Furious,” which ran from last 2009 to early 2011, ATF agents were monitoring the purchase of guns that were eventually provided to a Mexican drug cartel. But the U.S. government lost track of thousands of these illegally purchased weapons, and two of them were found at the scene of the shooting of a U.S. border control agent in December 2010.
That shooting triggered congressional investigations. The Bush administration had also used “gun-walking,” tactics but Republicans seized on the Obama Justice Department, particularly after DOJ at first sent a letter to Congress saying ATF was not using gun-walking, but then was forced to retract that statement.
In response to several congressional inquiries, Holder and his aides have turned over more than 7,000 pages of documents to Congress. But Republicans, particularly Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, say they should provide even more, as the department has released tens of thousands of papers to its internal inspector general.
Justice Department officials and congressional Democrats say DOJ cannot turn over many of the documents because it would make public names and other information involved in ongoing criminal investigations.
And they argue there is little evidence Holder was involved in the formation or execution of the actual “Fast and Furious” program, so he should certainly not face a congressional censure.
A contempt vote would no doubt be a personal embarrassment to Holder. But it would not actually force him to leave his post and is likely to be a strict-party line vote that Democrats and the White House can dismiss as simply another sign of the partisanship of congressional Republicans. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has already said Holder has Obama’s full support and casts the controversy as “politics.”
2. Obama and Holder are very personally close
It’s unlikely Obama and the White House would push for the resignation of Holder, who is perhaps the closest member of the Cabinet to Obama personally. Holder and Obama became allies when the president served in the Senate, and Holder’s wife Sharon is also very good friends with Michelle Obama.
“The couples socialized frequently, attending each other’s birthday parties at swanky Washington restaurants and getting together for small informal dinners at the home of Valerie Jarrett,” journalist and author Daniel Klaidman writes in a book released this month called “Kill or Capture” that looks at national security policy over the last three years.
3. It would be a concession to the right at a time when Obama needs the left
Personal relationships aside, Holder is both the most prominent African-American in the Cabinet and a champion of some major liberal causes, such as the Democratic push against laws that require voters to present photo identification at the polls.
With Obama running a reelection campaign in which he is strongly appealing to his political base of liberal voters and minorities, dumping Holder would be viewed as a concession to Issa, congressional Republicans and Fox News, which has continually harped on “Fast and Furious.” It would reignite criticism of the president from the political left, which has disagreed with some of his personnel moves, such as allowing the resignations of Van Jones and Shirley Sherrod, and his push toward compromises with Republicans on a number of issues. It would likely anger key black leaders who respect Holder and say he has done nothing wrong.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr