Eric Holder, who heads Mr Obama’s justice department, is said to have become “incensed” after being accused by David Axelrod of complaining publicly about political interference in his office.

“That’s bull****,” Mr Holder said in a confrontation after a cabinet meeting, according to author Daniel Klaidman. He writes: “The two men stood chest to chest. It was like a school yard fight”.

The relatively mild-mannered Mr Axelrod is said to have told the attorney general: “Don’t ever, ever accuse me of trying to interfere with the operations of the Justice Department”, a taboo in US politics…

The argument is said to have erupted over attempts to add a political official to the staff of Mr Holder, who has presided over a handful of political and public relations blunders since taking office in 2009.