Obama asserts executive privilege ahead of Holder contempt vote

President Obama on Wednesday asserted executive privilege over documents sought by a House panel ahead of its vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

It's the first time Obama has used executive privilege since taking office. A White House aide said the president had gone longer without asserting the privilege in a congressional dispute than any other president in the last three decades.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said his panel was "evaluating" a letter from Deputy Attorney General James Cole asserting the privilege that arrived minutes before Issa's committee was to begin contempt proceedings. 

The vote was to take place Wednesday after a last-ditch effort to reach a deal over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious failed on Tuesday night. The contempt vote is expected to pass.

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Issa said the letter "falls short of any reason to delay today's proceedings" but that the House is "currently working" to determine what assertions can legally be upheld.

He said the committee may recess its markup of the contempt resolution if the House gets an official assertion from the White House of executive privilege.

Cole's letter to Issa, on behalf of the White House, informed the Oversight chairman of the decision to exert executive privilege and argued that the DOJ has made “extraordinary efforts to accommodate the Committee’s legitimate oversight interests.”

“The information provided to the Committee shows clearly that the Department leadership did not intend to mislead Congress in the February 4 letter or in any other statements concerning Fast and Furious,” the letter read in part. “The Department has already shared with the Committee all internal documents concerning the drafting of the February 4 letter, and numerous Department officials and employees, including the Attorney General, have provided testimony, transcribed interviews, briefings, and other statements concerning the drafting and subsequent withdrawal of that letter.”

In a letter to the president requesting the executive privilege, Holder detailed the efforts he said his department made to satisfy the House panel.

“We consider the Department’s accommodations … to have been extraordinary,” Holder wrote. “Despite these accommodations, however, the Committee scheduled a vote on its contempt resolution. At that point, the Department offered an additional accommodation that would fully address the Committee’s remaining questions …The Committee, however, has not accepted the Department’s offer and has instead elected to proceed with its contempt vote.”

White House officials and Democrats scolded Issa over the contempt vote, saying the party should be focused on issues such as federal transportation funding set to expire at the end of the month and interest rates on federally-subsidized student loans set to double in July.

"Republicans insist on moving forward with an effort that Republicans and objective legal experts have noted is purely political," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said. "Given the economic challenges facing the country, we believe that House Republicans should work with the rest of Congress and the president to create more jobs, not more political theater.”

A White House aide noted that former President George W. Bush asserted executive privilege six times and former President Clinton used it 14 times. In both cases, the aide said, the presidents had sought to protect "the same category of documents we’re protecting today.”

But Republicans questioned the move.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Obama's assertion of executive privilege raises "monumental questions" about whether the White House was involved in the authorization of or the fallout from the botched gun-tracking operation.

"How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen?" Grassley said in a statement. "Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?"

Obama repeatedly has said he did not know about the tactics used in Fast and Furious and plans to hold the people who authorized them responsible.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on Issa's panel, told CNN's Starting Point that the contempt hearings were only meant to “embarrass the president.” At the panel's proceedings, he blasted Issa for politicizing the hearings and disrespecting Holder.

“For the past year, you’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard. You accused him of a cover-up for protecting documents that he is prohibited from providing," Cummings said.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), a former chairman of the Oversight Committee, also criticized Issa for the way he has conducted his investigation and his treatment of Holder, saying that it is the “most ridiculous thing” he has seen in his years serving on the panel.

Issa and Towns typically have had one of the more congenial bipartisan relationships on the committee, and Towns previously had not confronted Issa over his investigation.

“In all of 30 years of being in the United States Congress the way that [Holder] was treated when he was here testifying before this committee, I must admit I’ve never seen anybody treated in that fashion,” said Towns.

“I think this is a mistake, a major mistake,” he said about the contempt resolution. “It’s a discredit to this committee. And of course, this committee, as you know, has a dual name of oversight and government reform and I don’t see you reforming anything here.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing that I think I’ve seen in my years of being on this committee.”

Issa wants documents that he says would show how much Justice knows about Fast and Furious, a controversial gun-tracking operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Holder has insisted he did not know of the operation.

Issa has focused his request on DOJ documents from after Feb. 4, 2011, when the department sent a letter to Grassley denying that it let guns "walk" across the border into Mexico. Issa wants as much internal correspondence as possible that could give him a clear picture of how much the department knew about those tactics and what made the DOJ withdraw its letter in December.

"The Department has provided the Committee with over 7,600 pages of documents and has made numerous high-level officials available for public congressional testimony, transcribed interviews, and briefings,” Cole added. “Attorney General Holder has answered congressional questions about Fast and Furious during nine public hearings, including two before the Committee. The Department has devoted substantial resources to responding to these congressional inquiries.”

After a meeting with Issa on Tuesday night, Holder told reporters the chairman was consumed with "political gamesmanship."


— Posted at 10:14 a.m. and updated at 12:45 p.m.