Eric Holder has been under fire from across the aisle for weeks now. Sarah Palin bashed the attorney general's decision to try terrorists in federal courtrooms instead of military tribunals, saying he should resign because "of the way that we are treating these terrorists and allowing them our constitutional protections when they don't deserve them." Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey told Fox News—the favorite broadcast venue for Holder's critics—that the management of terrorism trials under Holder created the appearance of "amateur night" at the Justice Department. Missouri Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, joined the chorus a few days ago, tearing into the AG's decision to pursue a civilian trial for the young Nigerian accused of trying to bomb a jetliner on Christmas Day. "I think Eric Holder has been totally wrong, and he should go," Bond told The Wall Street Journal.
But now, it seems, Holder has a far worse problem: being second-guessed, very publicly, from within the administration—by the president himself.
“He has real enemies among the Republicans, who want to make him the face of how Democrats have supposedly gone soft on terrorism,” says a senior Democrat. “And it looks like he has real adversaries in the White House, too.”
On Friday, the White House disclosed that the president will become involved in the decision of how and where to try to terrorist suspects—decisions that Holder had previously described as free of political influence because they were his and his alone.
The drumbeat of criticism has anxious Democrats wondering if the attorney general, despite what appears to be a genuine friendship with Obama, can hold on to the job that admirers say he has coveted since he first signed on at the Justice Department as an ambitious young prosecutor in the 1970s.
"Eric needs to fight back hard," a senior Senate Democrat tells The Daily Beast. "He has real enemies among the Republicans, who want to make him the face of how Democrats have supposedly gone soft on terrorism. And it looks like he has real adversaries in the White House, too."
The administration is scrambling to find somewhere to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after Holder's original plan—to hold the trial in a civilian courthouse in Lower Manhattan, only blocks from ground zero—was opposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had originally supported the idea.
City officials feared that "the trial of the century," as Holder once proudly described it, would be a neon-lit invitation to terrorists to attack again.
In an embarrassing about-face, the White House is now holding out the possibility that Mohammed and four other 9/11 plotters will face a military tribunal, and that the trial will take place somewhere—anywhere—other than New York.
The White House is eager to head off a Senate bill that would bar any terror suspect held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp from being brought to the United States for civilian trials; the idea has support from moderate Democrats.
Some liberals have questioned whether Obama's involvement represents an improper assertion of the White House into a matter properly left to the Justice Department—political pressure on a law-enforcement decision. But former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a Republican who served under President George H.W. Bush, says the White House had made a mistake from the start by trying to burden the attorney general with sole responsibility for terrorism prosecutions.
"I don't want to be too hard on Eric Holder," said Thornburgh, adding he has long admired the AG. "I think the mistake was made in off-loading the whole decision on him in these cases."
Thornburgh said the White House should have stepped in much earlier in decisions about "where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is going to be tried and how do you deal with the Christmas bomber—those are classic national-security questions" that go well beyond the Justice Department.
Through his spokesmen and others at the Justice Department, Holder insists that the Republican criticism of his decision-making smacks of politics ahead of this November's mid-term elections, when the GOP hopes to portray the Obama administration as soft on terrorism.
"Much of the criticism has been more focused on politics than on facts, and that's unfortunate," his chief spokesman, Matthew Miller, tells The Daily Beast.
The reports of strife between Holder and White House officials, especially Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are "overblown," Miller said. "We work well with the White House on a number of issues."
But others in the administration say Holder often does feel under siege from White House officials, Emanuel in particular, who believe the attorney general is unnecessarily antagonizing Republican leaders—and voters—in trying to prove that civilian courts can deal with terrorist cases.
Recent polls suggest that the public, by an overwhelming margin, prefers that terrorists be dealt with in military tribunals, not in civilian courts.
Whatever the flap over terrorism cases, Holder's defenders insist that he has otherwise done well in his first year at the Justice Department given the turmoil he found there in the aftermath of the Bush years, when the department was regularly accused—and not just by Democrats—of being turned into a political arm of the White House.
Behind the scenes, aides say, Holder has been rebuilding parts of the department that the Bush administration had effectively neutered, if not shut down, especially the divisions that are charged with enforcing federal laws on civil rights, antitrust, and the environment.
After years of scandal, many department veterans, Democrats and Republicans alike, agree that Holder has restored a sense of calm and competence in the long-battered agency.
"Eric has made real efforts to earn the respect of the American public for the department, which rightly or wrongly lost a lot of respect in the latter years of the Bush administration," Thornburgh said. "That's an accomplishment."
Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation .