By Russell Berman and Alicia M. Cohn - 04/29/12 04:43 PM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday defended the House Republican move to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt but stopped short of saying he should resign over the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” operation.
“The American people deserve the truth, and the administration has an obligation to turn over the relevant documents right now,” Boehner told reporters, a day after the House Oversight and Government Reform committee voted along party lines to recommend a contempt citation over Holder’s refusal to turn over certain documents to the panel.
They have pointed to the 2010 death of border agent Brian Terry as a tragedy caused by the operation, and Boehner on Thursday read aloud a statement from Terry’s family criticizing President Obama for invoking executive privilege to shield Holder from turning over the documents Republicans are seeking. Guns linked to the Fast and Furious operation were found at the scene of Terry’s murder.
The committee had sought internal agency documents that would help clarify how much the agency knew about the operation that put weapons into the hands of drug cartels crossing the border into Mexico.
The requested documents are now protected by the White House under Obama’s exercise of executive privilege, which occurred shortly before the contempt vote and was the president’s first use of the power to resist subpoenas.
“We are pursuing our legitimate concerns about making sure that the American people know the truth behind Fast and Furious and the death of Brian Terry,” Boehner said.
The Speaker criticized the move to invoke executive privilege “at the 11th hour and 50th minute,” calling it “an admission that White House officials were involved in the decisions that misled the Congress and covered up the truth. What is the Obama administration hiding in Fast and Furious?”
An increasing number of senior Republicans have joined rank-and-file conservatives in calling for Holder’s resignation, but Boehner did not answer directly on Thursday when asked if Holder should step down.
“What we’re trying to get to here are the facts and the truth about where this program started, why it continued, and why an American border agent was killed as a result of it. What we want is the truth,” Boehner said. “It’s not about personalities.”
The White House and Holder both fired back at Republicans on Thursday for the panel's contempt vote. White House spokesman Jay Carney called the matter "political theater."
"What this is about after all this time...is an attempt to score political points," Carney said, adding that "it's a flawed attempt."
In an appearance in Copenhagen, Holder called the contempt vote “unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented.” He reiterated his offer of a compromise that would resolve the conflict, which House Republicans rejected on Tuesday.
Democrats have assailed the House GOP’s move as “a witch hunt” that does nothing to help the weak economy. The Speaker dismissed those claims on Thursday.
“While politically this may not be the smartest thing to do, we have taken an oath of office and we have to follow it,” Boehner said in an earlier interview on “The Laura Ingraham Show.” “We have given the administration every ample opportunity to comply with this. Frankly, we are at this stage because the Attorney General Eric Holder has refused to work with us.”
GOP strategist Karl Rove said Wednesday that President Obama could benefit if the story dominates political dialogue over the next few weeks and takes attention away from the economy.
“I think he thinks this is the best of a bunch of bad options and gives him the chance to avoid the kind of dialogue he doesn't want to have,” Rove said on Fox News.
Amie Parnes and Geneva Sands contributed to this story.