How long can Eric Holder hang on?

It's been a long, fraught tenure rife with faux-scandals and near-misses. But the AP phone flap could be different

Published May 16, 2013 1:45PM (EDT)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder             (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

When Attorney General Eric Holder walked into a hearing room in the Rayburn House office building yesterday, he must have expected that lawmakers would rake him over the coals for his department’s snooping on AP reporters, but he didn’t seem nervous. After all, this pageant of scandal and Congressional grilling has become routine for Holder, who has been a lightning rod since the first days of the Obama Administration.

After almost four and half years on the job, he’s been the first attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress, been called “rabidly un-American,” and even reportedly tried to resign. A LexisNexis search for “Eric Holder” “grilled” and “Congress” returns 534 articles. Attorneys general don’t often last two presidential terms.

Could the AP phone records controversy could be a tipping point for the embattled AG, whom even Democrats have been wary to support?

The sheer number of controversies, real or imagined, befalling Holder is astonishing. From the left, he’s taken heat from the likes of Elizabeth Warren for saying big banks are too big to prosecute; from civil liberties advocates for prosecuting twice as many leakers as were prosecuted under every other previous president; and from Obama’s liberal base for opposing liberalization of marijuana laws.

Early on in Holder’s tenure, the Justice Department earned a black eye for its handling of the corruption case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens. Holder replaced the entire prosecution team and handled the situation about as well as possible, but it nonetheless planted doubt about politicization inside the nation’s top law enforcement agency.

Still, most of the heat has come from the right. One of Holder’s first big decisions in office was to try 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed in federal court in New York. After a backlash so fierce that Republicans passed a law to try to prevent it, Holder reversed course and said the suspected terrorist would be tried in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay.

Then Holder got in trouble when he acknowledged that he hadn’t read Arizona’s harsh SB-1070 anti-immigration law, a 10-page bill he told lawmakers he had only “glanced at it,” even as he was attacking it publicly.

Of course there was also the drawn out, over-hyped fight over the botched ATF gun running sting operation known as Fast and Furious. After years of fighting, House Republicans last year voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress -- the first time such a move has been taken against a sitting Cabinet official. Holder was enemy number one for the NRA, so the group decided to score lawmakers on their contempt vote, even though it had little to do with guns. At least forty House Republicans also signed onto a campaign demanding Holder step down. A DoJ inspector general report eventually cleared Holder of any wrongdoing, but that didn't stop the GOP ire.

Later, the administration decided to stop defending the Defence of Marriage Act, subjecting Holder to a new round of attacks and claims that he was violating the constitution.

Meanwhile, there’s been an undeniable thread of racial resentment in the attacks against Holder throughout his tenure as the nation’s first African-American attorney general. The tone was set after a 2009 speech commemorating Black History Month in which Holder said, “we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race. Unsurprisingly, the remark provided weeks of fodder for the right and eventually Obama himself had to do damage control. “I think it’s fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language,” Obama told the New York Times in what the paper termed a “mild rebuke.”

Race reared its head again when the Justice Department decided to stop prosecuting a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party because of a lack of evidence. That prompted conservatives to claim that Holder "wasn't going to go after black defendants,” as Rush Limbaugh said at the time. Fox News did almost 100 segments on the controversy.

More recently, Holder compared voting restrictions like new voter ID laws to Jim Crow, something The Wall Street Journal said was Holder trying to “stir up racial incitement.”

Things got so bad for Holder at one point in 2010 that he even considered resigning, according to a book published last year, as the Washington Post reported:

Depressed about his isolation in the Obama administration, growing criticism by the media and his mother’s death, considered resigning two years ago, according to a book being released Tuesday.

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama and a Holder friend, persuaded him to stay, according to Daniel Klaidman in “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency.”

“This will not be good for you and it will not be good for your friend, the president,” Jarrett told Holder

Holder reportedly did not get along well with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, who allegedly undermined Holder when the going got tough. Now, his relationship is much better with the White House and he feels more comfortably in the job, Klaidman reports.

Being the attorney general is never an easy position. Janet Reno was subject to all sorts of vicious and unfair attacks under Clinton, and they have a history of getting pushed out after scandals or other problems. Much of the criticism heaped on Holder is unfair, and as mentioned, racially tinged. But has he had enough?

One thing that probably gives him major job security: It would be difficult or even impossible for Obama to get enough Senate Republicans to confirm a new AG. Republicans might block a nomination outright, or demand so many concessions in exchange for a confirmation that the price wouldn't be worth it.

Obama appointed Holder because of his  "toughness and independence,” as the president said in a speech announcing the pick in 2008. Holder will need plenty of both to survive.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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