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Holder On The Hot Seat Over Leak Investigations

Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on May 15 before the House Judiciary Committee.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on May 15 before the House Judiciary Committee.

Attorney General Eric Holder has been a lightning rod for the president's fiercest critics during his four years in office. Lately, he's been back on the hot seat with a crisis of his own making: the Justice Department's aggressive stance toward reporters in national security leak cases.

Holder heads to the Senate on Thursday, where lawmakers are sure to demand an explanation.

Being in the center of the storm is nothing new for Holder. Even before he was confirmed by the Senate in 2009, Republicans in Congress singled him out for criticism, says former spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

"I think with some members of Congress — particularly some Republicans — the attorney general has been a favorite target of theirs, partly because he is the perfect proxy for the president," Schmaler says.

Schmaler says Holder has drawn all that attention because he's one of the more left-leaning members of the Cabinet, and he's personally close to President Obama and the first lady.

Meanwhile, over the past couple of decades, the job of attorney general has become more politicized. That's something that makes Holder uncomfortable every time he goes to Capitol Hill, says onetime prosecutor and Senate lawyer Stephen Ryan.

"The question is," says Ryan, "Is the attorney general ready for people who punch wildly and below the belt on occasion, and land some blows that are quite honest and above the belt? And so I think he's got some problems that in the second term are hard to deal with."

One of those problems: Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee say they are investigating whether Holder gave false testimony when he told them last month that he had never been involved in charging a reporter with a crime. Later, word came that Holder approved court papers that called a Fox News reporter a possible co-conspirator in a national security leak case.

"I don't think there's any issue about perjury, and I think that's pure politics," says Republican lawyer Andrew McBride, who served in the Justice Department under Attorneys General Dick Thornburgh and William Barr. "The president's right about that."

But McBride says Republicans in Congress do have a legitimate beef about Holder's treatment of reporters — especially a recently disclosed subpoena for the phone records of Associated Press reporters in another leak case. McBride says the Justice Department approved that subpoena through an internal process, without involving a judge or any neutral arbiter.

"I think the larger question for the American people and our First Amendment freedoms really [is]: Is it time to give up the idea that the department can police itself on the issue of media subpoenas?" McBride says.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CBS' Face the Nation that the attorney general needs to answer another question: "Is he really able to effectively serve the president of the United States and the American people under the present circumstances? That's a decision he'd have to make."

Holder has survived close calls before, including uproar over his now-reversed decision to try the Sept. 11 attack plotters in New York City; controversy over civil rights cases; and the law enforcement gun-trafficking scandal known as Fast and Furious.

The difference this time is that the tactics against reporters have alienated the president's political base and prompted even liberal outlets like The Huffington Post to demand the attorney general's resignation.

Schmaler, Holder's former spokeswoman, says: Don't hold your breath.

"I don't see him leaving anytime other than when he plans to leave," Schmaler says.

Ryan, the veteran Washington lawyer, says he's not ready to offer a prediction on Holder's tenure. But he says the self-inflicted wounds at the Justice Department give Republicans another item on their laundry list of second-term scandals.

"It does give the Republican House the ability to paint in a pointillist way that the picture is of an administration in disarray or out of tune, and I think that that's damaging to the president, and it's damaging at the wrong time in his administration," Ryan says.

He will be watching whether Holder, in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, can repair some of that damage.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.