Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sharply criticized lawmakers Monday for voting to hold him in contempt of Congress last week, saying Republicans have made him a “proxy” to attack President Obama in an election year.
In his first interview since Thursday’s vote, Holder said lawmakers have used an investigation of a botched gun-tracking operation as a way to seek retribution against the Justice Department for its policies on a host of issues, including immigration, voting rights and gay marriage. He said the chairman of the committee leading the inquiry, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), is engaging in political theater as the Justice Department tries to focus on public safety.
The House voted Thursday to make Holder the first sitting attorney general in U.S. history to be held in contempt, after he withheld certain documents that lawmakers have demanded as part of their investigation of Fast and Furious.
As part of the gun operation, run by the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, federal agents watched as more than 2,000 guns hit the streets; their goal was to trace them to a Mexican drug cartel. Two guns linked to the operation were later found at the scene where a Border Patrol agent was killed.
The Justice Department has provided Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee with 7,600 documents on Fast and Furious. Republicans, however, have pressed for more records about the department’s internal deliberations, saying they want to determine who knew about the operation and when. They have also questioned why Obama invoked executive privilege to keep the documents from them.
Defending his actions
In the interview, in a stately fifth-floor conference room at the Justice Department, the attorney general defended his handling of the case, saying that when he found out about Fast and Furious, he ordered an internal investigation, stopped the use of certain tactics in gun cases and made personnel changes. He also reiterated his belief that turning over the documents would have a “chilling effect” on department lawyers who prepare materials for cases.
“I’ve been a line lawyer, and I know what it would mean to think that ‘if I write this, it is going to someday come before a congressional committee,’ ” Holder said.
Those arguments have not resonated with Republicans or with some Democrats. Seventeen moderate Democrats who face tough reelection contests joined the vote against Holder; several said they thought the attorney general was thumbing his nose at the House’s oversight responsibility.