TOPICS > Politics

Why Eric Holder Is a ‘Lightning Rod for Conservatives’

June 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Testifying before a Senate committee, Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday defended his appointment of two federal prosecutors to investigate national security leaks. Judy Woodruff speaks with NPR's Carrie Johnson and Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek and The Daily Beast about Holder's frosty relationship with Republicans.

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Capitol Hill today, one of the president’s Cabinet members faced a hostile reception from one side of the political aisle. 

Another hearing and another tough reception from Republicans for Attorney General Eric Holder. This time, it involved sensitive national security leaks about cyber-attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities and secret drone strikes at militants in Yemen and elsewhere. 

Holder defended his appointment of two federal prosecutors, Ron Machen and Rod Rosenstein, to investigate the leaks. 

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. Attorney General: We have people who have shown independence, an ability to be thorough, and who have the guts to ask tough questions. 

And the charge that I have given them is to follow the leads wherever they are, whether it is — wherever it is in the executive branch or some other component of government. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee demanded an independent special counsel. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: 

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: And you’re handling it in a way that creates suspicions where they should not be. And all I’m asking for is for you to find a lawyer in this country that all of us could say, virtually all of us could say “that is the right person to do this job,” rather than you picking two people and telling us about how great they are. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were also new blasts over Operation Fast and Furious. Some 2,000 guns initially disappeared in the botched federal sting involving gun smuggling from Arizona to Mexico. 

Today, it sparked a fiery exchange between Holder and Texas Senator John Cornyn. 

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: You won’t tell the truth about what you know and when you knew it on Fast and Furious. You won’t cooperate with a legitimate congressional investigation. 

So, Mr. Attorney General, it’s more sorrow than — than regret — than anger that I would say that you leave me no alternative but to join those that call upon you to resign your office. 

ERIC HOLDER: This is now the ninth time that I have answered questions before a congressional committee about Fast and Furious. 

If you want to talk about Fast and Furious, I’m the attorney general that put an end to the misguided tactics that were used in Fast and Furious, which leads me to believe that the desire here is not for an accommodation, but for a political point-making. 

And that is the kind of thing that, you know, you and your side I guess have the ability to do, if that’s what you want to do. It is the thing that I think turns people off about Washington. While we have very serious problems, we’re still involved in this political gamesmanship. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So far, Holder has had President Obama’s backing, including this last October. 

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: I think I have been very clear that I have complete confidence in Attorney General Holder, in how he handles his office. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, Republicans insist Holder has withheld documents on Fast and Furious. And the House Oversight Committee is considering citing him for contempt. The Justice Department says it has released 7,600 pages of material. And Holder insisted today that he’s trying to cooperate. 

ERIC HOLDER: As I said, I want to avoid this constitutional crisis. I will not, however, compromise the integrity of ongoing prosecutions or put at risk witnesses or people who we are working with. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: The House committee votes on the contempt citation next week. 

For more on how Republicans have targeted Holder, we turn to CARRIE JOHNSON, who covers the Justice Department for NPR, and DANIEL KLAIDMAN. He is a “Newsweek” and Daily Beast special correspondent and the author of “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency.”

And we thank you both for being with us. 

CARRIE JOHNSON, NPR: Thank you. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, CARRIE JOHNSON, to you first. Why were Republicans today again coming down so hard on the attorney general? 

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, almost from Eric Holder’s nomination and even before his confirmation in 2009, leading Senate Republicans had insisted that they were going to target Eric Holder as vulnerable to political attack.

That pattern has continued up until today, although I would say today what had been a simmer turned into a boil in many regards. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what was the main takeaway? We showed some of these exchanges that were contentious, tough. 

CARRIE JOHNSON: Contentious, indeed. Senator John Cornyn, Republican from Texas, called for Holder to resign. Holder said he wasn’t planning to do that. 

The attack today by the Republicans seemed to have two fronts. One is an old controversy, Fast and Furious, that botched gun sting operation along the Southwest border. And then the new element, the second element is how the Justice Department is handling these leak investigations. 

Very sensitive information was allegedly leaked by members of the administration. And Republicans on Capitol Hill want the Justice Department to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate that. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Republicans not satisfied with the fact he said that — he thinks that these U.S. attorneys will be sufficiently independent. 

CARRIE JOHNSON: They are skeptical. People, including Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, have pointed out that one of the U.S. attorneys doing the investigating had been a political donor to President Obama, even though the other appointee happened during the Bush administration and is a Republican. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: DANIEL KLAIDMAN, is there a central thread running through all of this? As CARRIE JOHNSON just said, there has been criticism of the attorney general almost going back to day one of this administration. 

DANIEL KLAIDMAN, Managing Editor, “Newsweek”: Yes, Carrie is right about that. It really did begin at — start at the very beginning. 

You know, I think if there is one central thread, it is that this attorney general perhaps more than any other members of the Obama Cabinet is associated with some of the more progressive policies of the Obama administration. And so he’s become a lightning rod for conservatives. 

It begins with his involvement in counterterrorism policies, you know, contentious, hot-button issues, closing down Guantanamo Bay, his decision to investigate Bush era torture, and then the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in Manhattan, which was extremely controversial. 

Beyond that, attorneys general are always at the center of very divisive social issues. In the case of Holder, it’s gay marriage, it’s immigration, and it’s civil rights issues. And so all of these issues have made him a kind of a vulnerable target in some ways for partisan attack. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, staying with you, is it — should we just consider this more of the same, that attorneys general always face this kind of scrutiny, that they get swept up in some of the more — the bigger controversies of every administration? Or has this reached a different level? 

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, if it’s reached a different level, it’s only because I think Washington has reached a higher level of recrimination and political partisanship. 

I have covered attorneys general going back 20 years. And, you know, there has — as far as I remember, there’s never been a case where — particularly in an election year, in the last year of a president’s term, the opposition party has not gone after the attorney general. 

Attorneys general, they occupy very a sensitive position in the government. It’s sort of the intersection of law and politics and investigations. And they typically come under partisan attack. In Holder’s case, there’s maybe one other factor. 

Early on, he did make some political stumbles that I think reinforced this idea that he was a liberal. He gave a speech on race in which he used the infelicitous phrase the nation of cowards. He talked about some gun control issues which were controversial. 

The irony, I would say, is that Holder actually is a fairly mainstream Democrat. He’s not a kind of unreconstructed liberal. This is a guy who spent most of his career as a federal prosecutor and then as a judge, where he had a reputation as a very tough sentencer. They called him Hold ‘Em Holder. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: CARRIE JOHNSON, how has the Justice Department dealt with all this over the past three or so years? And how has the attorney general himself dealt with it? 

CARRIE JOHNSON: I think that’s changed over time, too, Judy. 

At first, this administration seemed to not pay much attention to attacks, especially on the Fast and Furious operation. They told members of Congress a year-and-a-half ago there was really nothing to see. And then, as they investigated further, they realized maybe there were some mistakes and they needed to get to the bottom of who made them. 

But because their response initially to Congress was, move along, there’s really nothing going on, they have had to spend some time cleaning up that position. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as of right now, the White House sticking with him. 

CARRIE JOHNSON: Very much so. 

As late as yesterday, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Holder had the full support of the president. And, in fact, the president and the first lady and the Obama — and the Holder family are relatively close personal friends. They see each other. And Holder has a strong position in the inner circle in that regard. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, DANIEL KLAIDMAN, we know the Republicans in the House looking at a contempt citation. Is there a sense of where this is going to go over the months to come? 

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, it’s hard to know. 

It seems like — and I think Carrie I’m sure is covering this — it seems like they are — the Justice Department anyway and Eric Holder is doing whatever he can to try to head this off. It would be not a good thing, I think, from the perspective of people in the Justice Department if Holder was cited in contempt or if, on the other hand he had to turn over deliberative documents, you know, to deal with this problem, because, you know, you really don’t want the Congress meddling, for example, in investigations. 

And that’s something that I think has been talked about here. So I think the hope this will be headed off. It’s only happened very rarely that a attorney general had been held in contempt. Holder called this a constitutional crisis. That may be going a little bit far, but I think it’s serious business. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: CARRIE JOHNSON, just finally, no indication he’s going to step down. 

CARRIE JOHNSON: None at all. 

In fact, I checked in with the White House and Justice Department officials this afternoon. And they said they don’t expect to see him going anywhere. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: CARRIE JOHNSON, DANIEL KLAIDMAN, thank you both. 

CARRIE JOHNSON: Thank you. 

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Thank you.