Moments before a House committee vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, the White House took the dramatic step of asserting executive privilege over thousands of documents that Holder has refused to turn over to the committee.
In a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Deputy Attorney General James Cole informed Issa that the president has formally asserted executive privilege over documents related to the committee's investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, a gun-walking program under the Department of Justice that ultimately led to the death of an American agent.
“We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee's concerns and to accommodate the Committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious," Cole wrote to Issa. “The Department remains willing to work with the Committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues."
Cole’s letter came a day after a formal request from Holder to President Obama explaining his opinion that the White House has the right to assert executive privilege in this case and asking the president to do so. Holder met with Issa on Tuesday afternoon in a last-minute attempt to avoid Wednesday's contempt vote, but after 20 minutes, both sides left the meeting with no progress to report.
“I think the ball is in their court. They rejected what I considered an extraordinary offer on our part,” Holder told reporters Tuesday night. “I think we are involved more in political gamesmanship than in getting them the information they say they want.”
But for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who has been working with Issa on the Fast and Furious investigation for more than a year, “The assertion of executive privilege raises monumental questions. How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen?”
“Until now everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice. The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?”
Although Issa briefly delayed the hearing Wednesday morning, he convened the committee 20 minutes later and announced that the White House’s letter would not stop the contempt vote.
“The untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” Issa said, adding that he and the committee staff were still evaluating the legality of the White House’s efforts to protect the documents through executive privilege.
The top Democrat on the Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, angrily lashed out at Issa, accusing him of personal and political attacks on the attorney general and defending Holder’s efforts to satisfy the committee’s request for more documents, even after submitting more than 7,000 for their review.
“It seems to me you have no interest in resolving this issue and that the committee planned to go forward with the contempt all along.” Cummings said to Issa. “It pains me to say this, but this is what I believe.