Attorney General Eric Holder has tangled with Republicans, Obama advisers
Holder was held in contempt of Congress over the "Fast and Furious" gun sting
After more than four years of battles, Holder is getting some GOP buy-in to initiatives
One of Holder's biggest foes in Congress remains critical of the attorney general
Attorney General Eric Holder has been bruised and battered by Republicans who made him the first-ever sitting Cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress.
He’s been knocked around in behind-the-scenes White House battles with some of President Barack Obama’s top advisers.
But more than 1,700 days after being the first black man sworn in as attorney general, Holder has defied expectations that he was on his way out. And he’s planning on staying for a while longer.
Sources close to the attorney general say he plans to stay in office until well into 2014, at the President’s behest.
He’s changed his mind before. This past summer, he and the President spent time together during their vacation at Martha’s Vineyard. Holder was considering leaving later this year, and the President asked him to stay as long as he could, sources said.
These days, Holder appears to be more at ease in the job. Last week, he went toe-to-toe with Jamie Dimon, chief of JPMorgan Chase, taking a hard line on the bank’s tentative $13 billion mortgage securities settlement. At recent news conferences, the attorney general has even invited additional questions from reporters.
Not long ago, Holder’s battles with Republicans and even with Obama’s top lieutenants fueled years of speculation about how long he would remain on the job. The attorney general attracted Republican criticism early on after the President handed him the job of leading legal efforts to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Weeks after taking office in February 2009, Holder tangled with Rahm Emanuel, who was then White House chief of staff, over comments Holder made suggesting the need to revive the assault weapons ban, according to people familiar with the matter. Emanuel was angry that Holder’s gun control comments could provide fodder for opponents of the President’s legislative agenda. By 2010, Emanuel succeeded in getting tighter White House control of Holder’s public statements amid disagreement between the two men on how to deal with terrorism trials in New York of the accused 9/11 plotters.
In the meantime, Holder had to contend with efforts by other White House advisers, including David Axelrod and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, to rein in his public role on the administration’s behalf. Many of Holder’s troubles with White House officials were detailed in a book by journalist Daniel Klaidman.
A series of challenges
Matthew Miller, who was a top aide to Holder during some of those early troubles, says being tasked with the Guantanamo review began a series of challenges for Holder that became compounded with the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber case. Then the scandal over the botched gun sting called Fast and Furious and more than a year of congressional investigations and hearings added to the attorney general’s problems.
“Even he would say that in the first few years, he was unable to focus on the things he wanted to do as attorney general,” Miller said.
Fast and Furious, in which agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed suspected smugglers to buy about 2,000 firearms, squandered much of Holder’s tenure. Amid congressional hearings and Republican calls for his resignation, the attorney general assumed a more low-key public presence.
It wasn’t until September 2012, after a Justice Department inspector general probe cleared Holder of wrongdoing in Fast and Furious, that he began to emerge, giving media interviews and doing major speeches. By that time, Congress had held Holder in contempt in a fight over documents related to the gun sting.
Back on his feet
In recent months, Holder appears to have regained his footing.
He has spent recent months focusing on efforts to remove mandatory-minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses and boosting the department’s efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court struck down a key component of the law. He’s also trying to complete some big financial crisis cases.
He’s even managed to find a few Republicans to support some of his initiatives.
Rep. Jim Sensebrenner of Wisconsin is working to try to rescue the civil rights law. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah are working to put into law some changes Holder is making on mandatory-minimum sentences.
Miller says the difference has been that Holder is now focusing on matters he cares about.
“And you’re seeing the results,” Miller says.
He still takes fire, as he did this summer for targeting journalists in aggressive leak investigations. He announced some changes in the way prosecutors pursue such cases that appear to have quelled the outcry.
One of Holder’s harshest critics, California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, hasn’t been quieted by Holder’s attempts to turn the page.
In a June appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” at the time of the controversy over Holder’s testimony to Congress about the leak investigations, Issa said: “It’s hard to have confidence in what this attorney general says – or his people say – when so often it turns out not to be true.”