The backstory of how Obama lost his ‘heat shield.’
By GLENN THRUSH
September 25, 2014
It’s oddly fitting that Attorney General Eric Holder – a stubbornly independent career prosecutor ridiculed by Barack Obama’s advisers for having lousy political instincts— would nail his dismount.
But Holder, who began his stormy five-plus-year tenure at the Justice Department with his controversial “Nation of Cowards” speech, has chosen what seems to be the ideal (and maybe the only) moment to call it quits after more than 18 months of musing privately about leaving with the president and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, a trio bound by friendship, progressive ideology and shared African-American ancestry.
It was now or never, several current and former administration officials say, and Holder – under pressure to retire from a physician wife worried about a recent health scare, checked the “now” box. “It was a quit-now or never-quit moment,” one former administration official said. “You didn’t want confirmation hearings in 2015 if the Republicans control the Senate. So if he didn’t do it now, there was no way he could ever do it.”
Holder—described by associates as President Obama’s “heat shield” on race and civil rights—sprung it on the president over the Labor Day holidays. Obama didn’t bother to push back as he has in the past, even though staffers say he winces at the prospect of a long confirmation battle, whomever he chooses for the nation’s top law enforcement job.
Holder’s announcement gives Obama several weeks to pick and vet a successor who would face confirmation hearings in the lame-duck session after the midterms. Holder has “agreed to remain in his post until the confirmation of his successor,” a top Justice Department aide said, as an insurance policy against GOP foot-dragging.
His timing also has a personal dimension. The keenly legacy-conscious Holder has never been in better standing, leaving on arguably the highest personal note of his tenure, after a year of progress on his plan to reform sentencing laws and just after his well-received, calming-the-waters trip to Ferguson, Missouri, during the riots in August. In a background email to reporters, a senior Justice Department official struck a victory-lap tone, writing, “The Attorney General’s tenure has been marked by historic gains in the areas of criminal justice reform and civil rights enforcement. The last week alone has seen several announcements related to these signature issues.”
That’s a striking contrast to the defensive posture of the last few years, when Holder became the first sitting Cabinet official to be found in contempt of Congress. Hill Republicans, who have warred with Holder for years, greeted his departure with don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out glee. “I welcome the news that Eric Holder will step down as Attorney General,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, in an email. “From Operation Fast and Furious to his misleading testimony before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Department’s dealings with members of the media and his refusal to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, Mr. Holder has consistently played partisan politics with many of the important issues facing the Justice Department.”
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