By Justin Sink - 06/05/13 09:00 AM EDT
Signs emerged Tuesday that embattled Attorney General Eric Holder will survive the latest storm threatening his tenure.
When President Obama nominated three judges to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, Holder was there in a moment fraught with symbolism. Obama dared the same Republicans who have been calling for Holder’s scalp to block his nominations, in the first time the president has announced federal court nominees, other than Supreme Court nominees, on camera.
Top congressional Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) offered similar praise. And while the move was mocked by Republicans, Holder was placed in charge of an internal review of Justice Department guidelines governing leak investigations.
Paul Begala, an aide to President Clinton during Janet Reno’s long, controversial reign at the Department of Justice, said signs point to Obama sticking with Holder.
He noted that the political costs of removing an attorney general are generally greater than keeping him.
“The challenges don’t go away if Eric goes away. They’re compounded and then you have a massive confirmation fight,” Begala said. “Do you want or need the fight to confirm a new attorney general when you have a perfectly good one there? That’s the calculus you make.”
Begala added that there was an advantage to the punishment Holder was taking on behalf of the administration, keeping anger and attention focused away from the president.
“As a former White House aide, it’s a fine line, but you mostly don’t get upset when a Cabinet member is serving as a lightning rod away from you,” Begala said.
Holder also benefits from the inside-the-Beltway nature of the controversy over his department’s targeting of journalists. A Pew Research poll released late last month found that just 16 percent of Americans were closely following the Justice Department’s subpoena of media outlet phone records. Moreover, just 44 percent said they disapprove of the steps taken by investigators.
“I don’t think the average voter really cares about Holder,” University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik said. “It’s less of a, quote, ‘scandal’ than it is a policy disagreement, a classic battle between law enforcement and the press.”
Republicans, including House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.), have sought to instead focus on Holder’s statement that he wasn’t involved in the “potential prosecution” of any journalists.
Holder personally prepared a warrant identifying Fox News journalist James Rosen as a criminal “co-conspirator.” Although no charges were filed, Republicans argue that the attorney general was intentionally — and possibly criminally — misleading.
But Holder’s decision to remain on as attorney general in the president’s second term was partially fueled by Issa’s vote to find Holder in contempt of Congress last year. His latest accusations are only likely to steel the resolve of his supporters within the Obama administration.
Then, Issa accused the attorney general of withholding internal documents related to the botched “Fast and Furious” gunrunning operation despite a congressional subpoena. The ordeal struck a personal blow to Holder. Earlier this year he said that he doesn’t have any respect for the lawmakers who plowed ahead with the contempt vote, and he has called Issa’s behavior “shameful.”
Holder decided to stick it out as the attorney general in part to clear his name in court and show the GOP that he would not be bullied by their political “gamesmanship,” according to a senior Democratic aide.
And Holder appears to have allies for that effort in both Obama and the president’s inner circle. The New York Times reported that the president and first lady are personal friends of Holder and his wife. Moreover, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett is reportedly a top defender of the attorney general.
“The president supports the attorney general, period,” Begala said. “Ever since the moment he’s confirmed in the Senate, a Cabinet member has a constituency of one… and fundamentally, as long as you have the confidence of the president, he serves at his pleasure.”
Still, the risk for Holder is that extending support will become politically untenable. While targeting journalists’ phone records may have been an investigative necessity, the attorney general compounded the bad politics of the situation through muddled messaging. An off-the-record meeting with media organizations to discuss press freedoms became a new liability after some newspapers and networks refused to attend.
Those problems prompted a harsh profile in the Times and anonymous grumbles from White House staff that Holder should go.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said within the West Wing, “there’s always carping against anyone whose press is a problem for the president.”
But, Jillson said, the attorney general needs to make sure he’s helping, not hurting.
“When any member of the president’s Cabinet becomes a lightning rod for negative press and discussion, they have to decide when their continuing in office is more trouble to the president than it’s worth,” Jillson said.
Jordy Yager contributed.