An embattled Eric Holder began the week in Washington facing Republican calls for his resignation, but ended it on safer ground as Democrats stood by him.
Top Republicans worked on a last-minute compromise to avoid a looming—and potential embarrassing—House committee vote to hold the attorney general in contempt for failing to produce thousands of documents related to the Fast and Furious gun-running investigation.
But even with the political winds shifting in his favor, Holder faces a mounting challenge as he works to stave off the GOP’s ongoing demands and his department begins an internal—and highly scrutinized—investigation into recent leaks of classified national security information that even Democrats call the worst they've ever seen.
Although the House Oversight Committee had been barreling toward a vote next week to hold Holder in contempt of Congress, the attorney general reached out to Chairman Darrell Issa in a letter on Thursday, offering to turn over more internal documents related to Fast and Furious, and to meet with the congressman to review other document requests. Holder’s letter came as Republicans maneuvered behind the scenes to avert a showdown that could subject the GOP to allegations of playing political games.
Issa has been pushing for the last year to force Holder to release hundreds of thousands of documents related to the botched ATF program that allowed thousands of guns to reach the hands of Mexican criminals, including one that was used to kill an American law enforcement agent.
Last week, Holder admitted he had released just 7,600 of about 80,000 documents that fell under the subpoena. He explained that the remaining documents are related to ongoing investigations. He also accurately reminded Republicans he had testified on Capitol Hill about Fast and Furious nine times in the last year, hardly the picture of a man running from congressional oversight.
On this score, Holder is right—it would be illegal for him to release a number of the documents because of laws Congress itself passed preventing the dissemination of information related to wiretaps, wiretap applications, and documents related to ongoing prosecutions or investigations.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the oversight panel, defended Holder on Thursday, calling Republicans' moves “an extreme and blatant abuse of the congressional contempt power that undermines the credibility of the committee.”
Other top Democrats cast Holder's public flogging as little more than election-year theatrics, dismissing the planned contempt vote as not even having broad support among Republicans. “Issa is a man on an island on the contempt vote,” a Democratic official said.
Of course, congressional Democrats made similar demands of Justice Department officials, especially former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, during the Bush administration.
Although Holder seems on solid ground on the Fast and Furious front, he is playing defense on the repeated leaks of classified national security information to the New York Times and other media outlets—leaks that generally made President Obama look good. This creates a cloudier picture for Obama and to Holder, as he sticks to his plan to conduct an internal investigation into the leaks rather than appoint a special counsel with independent powers.
Last week, Holder opted to appoint two U.S. attorneys from within the Justice Department to head the probe. One of them, Rod Rosenstein, the top federal prosecutor in Maryland, presents few political problems for Obama. Not only is Rosenstein a 2005 Bush appointee to the post who was held over by Obama, his office has worked on one of the six leak investigations that the Obama administration has already begun prosecuting.
But Ron Machen, the U.S. attorney in D.C., quickly drew Republican fire for his past contributions to the Obama presidential campaign, as well as his role as a campaign volunteer helping to vet vice presidential nominees. These details, Republicans say, prove that Machen will not be able to operate outside the political influence of his bosses.
While there’s no reason to assume that Machen won’t conduct a full investigation, an outside counsel would eliminate even the appearance of political favoritism, a crucial element for an investigation into a matter that even some Democrats say is the worst example of leaking classified information they’ve ever seen.
But for Holder to be in any real danger politically, Democrats would have to have air their own doubts about the attorney general. Instead, they are standing by their man. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, thanked Holder on Tuesday "for his extraordinary service under trying circumstances in challenging times," while a spokeswoman for Cummings said he still has full confidence in Holder.
Even Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and has expressed her extreme concern over the national security leaks, said appointing an outside counsel would only delay the investigation, not improve it.
A top Democratic aide said that while Holder has been less than perfect in handling the fire aimed at him, he still has the support of Democrats in Congress. “I think that Democrats think here's a guy who isn't getting in front of things as he should, but he's doing the best he can.”