Attorney General Holder on the ropes

Attorney General Eric Holder is in the midst of perhaps the most serious challenge of his career over his department’s investigation of government leaks to journalists.

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The battle-scarred head of the Justice Department (DOJ) weathered a House vote placing him in contempt of Congress in President Obama’s first term, but is now facing mounting criticism from figures in both parties as well as scornful scrutiny from the media.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are investigating whether he lied to the panel under oath, while David Axelrod — Obama’s former chief political strategist — this week called Justice’s investigation of a Fox News reporter “disturbing.” Liberal pundit Bill Press said Holder should resign.

White House press secretary Jay Carney was peppered with several questions Wednesday about Holder and responded that Obama has “confidence” in the attorney general. Obama believes Holder is “doing a good job,” Carney said.

Holder has taken several actions to move through the storm.

He has hired Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) veteran communications director, Brian Fallon, as his chief spokesman and has initiated a series of in-person conversations with the D.C. bureau chiefs of major news outlets. At Obama’s request, he is reviewing the DOJ’s process for targeting journalists during its investigations of leaks to the media.

Mark Corallo, the public affairs director for the DOJ under former Attorney General John Ashcroft, said it is clear Holder is in trouble.

“If news organizations really stand up to him and don’t let it go and continue to hound him about it, then it’s going to continue to make his position very precarious,” said Corallo. “It’s as serious a situation as I’ve seen in 20 years. It really is.”

There have also been signs that Holder wants the public to know he thinks he and his department could have handled things differently.

A story this week in the Daily Beast quoted aides as saying Holder felt “a creeping sense of personal remorse” while reading a Washington Post story about Justice’s tracking of Fox News reporter James Rosen’s movements in and out of the State Department.

Holder is dealing with the fallout of two press controversies.

The first involves Justice secretly subpoenaing phone records at The Associated Press over two months in a search for national security leaks. The records were for at least 20 employees.

Cries that Justice was going too far escalated with the news that the DOJ had targeted Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator in its investigation of a separate government leak.

According to an affidavit that the court had not made public until recently, the DOJ spied on Rosen’s personal email accounts and tracked his whereabouts at the State Department building using data from his identification badge.

But the crushing blow came when the DOJ told reporters that Holder had personally signed off on the Rosen case.

The revelation piqued the interest of the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, Bob Goodlatte (Va.), who promptly launched an investigation to see if Holder misled Congress under oath.

Holder testified before the panel earlier this month — prior to news reports about the Rosen case — that he had not been involved in any prosecutions of reporters under the Espionage Act of 1917.

“In regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material — this is not something I’ve ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be wise policy,” Holder said at the time.

Carney told reporters Wednesday that Holder’s comments were completely accurate.

But Corallo, Ashcroft’s former spokesman, balked at that assertion, saying that the only thing in doubt was whether Holder intentionally lied to Congress.

“The fact that he misled Congress is irrefutable. Whether it was intentional or not is the only remaining question,” said Corallo.

No charges have been filed against Rosen, as they were against Stephen Kim, the alleged State Department source of the information at the center of the DOJ’s investigation.

Regardless, the damage may have already been done, as left-leaning news outlets and personalities, who were not quick to slam Holder over previous controversies, have begun calling for him to step down.

The Huffington Post ran a banner headline that read: “Time to go: Holder OK’d probe,” after the DOJ confirmed Holder’s personal involvement in the Rosen case.

Former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann and Press, the former chairman of the California Democratic Party, have both called on Holder to resign or be fired, respectively.

Tracy Schmaler, the former director of public affairs under Holder, defended the attorney general.

“I was there for four years, and these issues came up,” said Schmaler. “These were always issues that required a certain amount of consideration and deliberation. I think that the department and the attorney general has always viewed them to be important enough to take the time and make the deliberations that are required.”

The White House will be forced to gauge the level of heat it can stand to take from the controversies enshrouding Holder.

Obama can’t bear to lose support from Democrats as he’s already struggling to win over a handful of Republicans in an effort to push forward his legislative agenda.

And if the liberal scrutiny of Holder continues to increase, Obama may be forced to consider taking more severe steps with the attorney general.

Holder and Obama have traveled precarious roads before, however.

In the midnight hour before a successful GOP-led vote ultimately found Holder in contempt of Congress, Obama exerted executive privilege — for the first and only time — in an effort to block House Republicans from getting a series of internal DOJ communications about its false, and later retracted, congressional response to the failed gun-tracking operation, "Fast and Furious."

The move has pitted House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) against Holder in a protracted court battle over the documents.

The true test will likely come in the wake of Holder’s talks with news organizations, which are expected to last several weeks as he reviews the DOJ’s leak investigation policies.

After initially agreeing to attend talks with Holder, Fox News on Thursday said the company does not intend to take part in the talks if Holder insists that they be off the record. Several other media outlets, including Associated Press and The New York Times, have also said they are not planning to attend the off-the-record conversation with Holder.

Corallo said the talks strike him as a “dog and pony” show that are not likely to drum up any grand changes.

“This is meant to give those bureau chiefs cover, to give them a chance to point their fingers and really tell him how disappointed they are,” he said. “And then he’s going to say, ‘Going forward I’m going to work with you, and we’re going to fix this.’"

The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

— This story has been updated with new information.