WASHINGTON — Eric Holder may have thought he knew what he was in for before he became the U.S. attorney general.
“The years I spent in government taught me a lot,” the former judge and federal prosecutor assured the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 15, 2009. “With the benefit of hindsight, I can see my errors clearly, and I can tell you how I have learned from them.”
But four years after his relatively pain-free Senate confirmation, Holder sizzles on the political hot seat. For reasons both trumped up and genuine, he’s a repeat target for conservative and liberal critics alike. Though there’s no public sign he’s leaving soon, his career has entered the dangerous stage of insiders speculating about how long he’ll stick it out.
On Wednesday, the 62-year-old Columbia Law School graduate faced the latest in a series of Capitol Hill interrogations, with tough questions from both parties on several topics, including an aggressive Justice Department leak investigation.
“There’s been a lot of criticism,” Holder acknowledged at the hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
Some tough talk has been predictably partisan, as when Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus this week urged Holder to resign. Other harsh assessments come from left field, as when liberal former MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann echoed Priebus. While their rhetoric may be dismissed as unpersuasive posturing, together these polar political opposites suggest how Holder’s fate has gotten a one-two punch from the latest revelations.
On Monday, the Associated Press revealed that Justice Department investigators had secretly seized two months’ worth of telephone records from the news organization. The records, which the AP said covered 20 home and office lines used by reporters, were taken as part of an inquiry into the leak of classified information.
“I’m concerned,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said Wednesday. “The damage done to a free press is substantial, and will continue until corrective action is taken.”
Separately, the Justice Department is investigating revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative tea party organizations for tax-related scrutiny.
Technically, Holder stands apart from both quagmires. He recused himself from the Associated Press investigation, explaining Wednesday that Deputy Attorney General James Cole authorized the subpoenas for the telephone records. Whatever the IRS did wasn’t his responsibility, as the tax agency is part of the Treasury Department.
Politically and impressionistically, though, the two episodes may only further weigh the attorney general down, as he’ll inevitably be judged on how both investigations turn out.
“We will take a dispassionate view of this,” Holder said Wednesday of the IRS investigation. “This will not be about parties.”
Some have already made up their minds.
In mid-June 2012, saying he was acting “with regret,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called on Holder to resign over the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation, in which Mexican-based gangsters were allowed to buy firearms to help trace the trafficking of illegal weapons. Two weeks later, with 108 Democrats abstaining in protest, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to hold the attorney general in contempt for withholding documents.
It was the first time the nation’s top law enforcement officer had been found in contempt of Congress.
It was largely a symbolic gesture, as the Justice Department wouldn’t enforce it. But it hinted that some Republicans might attack Holder as a proxy for their broader assault on President Barack Obama, with whom he is friends, and Obama’s policies.
Still, the contempt vote wasn’t entirely one-sided, as 17 Democrats voted for the measure.
The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General subsequently concluded, in a 514-page report, that a “series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures” plagued the Fast and Furious operation. At the same time, the investigators concluded that Holder had no part in misleading Congress and had largely been left in the dark by subordinates who “should have promptly informed” him of the troubled operation.
The sharp tone of questions Wednesday from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who previously led the House contempt action, prompted Holder to call Issa’s actions “unacceptable and shameful.”
“It is inappropriate and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress,” a visibly angry Holder told Issa at the hearing.
But members of the Democrats’ liberal base have been unhappy, too.
Guantanamo “will be closed,” Holder assured senators in 2009. Instead, the detention facility for terrorism suspects remains open.
The Justice Department will “wage an aggressive effort against financial fraud and market manipulation,” Holder declared. But populists complain that banking fat cats didn’t go to jail, though Holder noted Wednesday that nearly 10,000 financial fraud cases have been filed.
Federal prosecutors won’t go after medical marijuana operations, Holder said in October 2009. In October 2011, the Justice Department reversed course, in a policy change that led to protests last weekend when he spoke at the University of California at Berkeley’s law school graduation.
“Your Justice Department has continued to put people in jail for marijuana,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., fumed Wednesday, adding that “it’s been an injustice for 40 years in this country.”
Among the Obama administration’s original top-tier Cabinet officials, Holder is now the last man standing.
Obama’s first secretary of state, secretary of defense and treasury secretary have all left. Four White House chiefs of staff have come and gone since Holder took his oath of office in February 2009. His chief deputy, Cole, is the third to hold that position.
Holder’s criminal division chief stepped down in March. An acting assistant attorney general heads the civil division. Acting heads, who lack the clout that comes with Senate confirmation, likewise head the Justice Department’s important national security division and Office of Legal Policy, among others.
“I’ve got to run an agency of 116,000 employees,” Holder said, “and I do it the best I can.”