If the Obama White House wants to send up smoke signals, it almost always turns to one outlet — the New York Times. That’s what makes their profile today of embattled Attorney General Eric Holder so compelling. Ostensibly, the profile positions Holder as taking arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, hoping to end them. However, anonymous sources with connections to the West Wing make it clear that momentum is growing at the White House to end the heartache already:
Over the course of four and a half years, no other member of President Obama’s cabinet has been at the center of so many polarizing episodes or the target of so much criticism. While the White House publicly backed Mr. Holder as he tried to smooth over the latest uproar amid new speculation about his future, some in the West Wing privately tell associates they wish he would step down, viewing him as politically maladroit. But the latest attacks may stiffen the administration’s resistance in the near term to a change for fear of emboldening critics.
The White House views the attacks on Mr. Holder as a “political agenda” and “would not hasten the departure of someone who’s competent and runs the department and is a friend because there’s a drumbeat,” said William M. Daley, a former White House chief of staff under Mr. Obama. “Whoever Barack Obama puts in there, these people will try to drumbeat him out of there, no matter what.”
But that does not mitigate the frustration of some presidential aides. “The White House is apoplectic about him, and has been for a long time,” said a Democratic former government official who did not want to be identified while talking about friends.
Some advisers to Mr. Obama believe that Mr. Holder does not manage or foresee problems, the former official said. “How hard would it be to anticipate that The A.P. would be unhappy?” the former official said. “And then they haven’t defended their position.”
That’s because Holder’s position is indefensible. He named Fox News reporter James Rosen as a co-conspirator in espionage in a warrant in order to get around statutory requirements on notifying media organizations about records seizures, and then further argued that the two-decade-long Washington correspondent was a flight risk. Three years later, he told Congress under oath that he’d never heard of any “potential prosecution” of reporters under the Espionage Act of 1917, and certainly had never been involved in any discussions of it. If that’s not perjury (and it likely is), it’s clearly dishonest at the very least, hardly commendable for the nation’s top law enforcement officer in his duty to remain accountable to Congress. In fact, to quote Holder himself, it’s downright shameful.
In my column at The Fiscal Times this week, I asked what the White House gains by keeping Holder around, and pointed out the risk of continuing to defend him:
The effort to protect Eric Holder seems far out of alignment with his value to the administration at this point. Obama had a perfect opportunity to dump Holder at the time of the Fast and Furious contempt citation, and again at the second-term transition. Instead, Holder said he’d stick around for another year, which means he would only have a few months left at best.
While a confirmation hearing for a new AG in the middle of this scandal would be uncomfortable at best, it won’t get any easier – and that’s assuming that Rosen is the only journalist that the DOJ and Holder have accused in secret warrant applications of espionage, a dicey assumption at best now.
The easiest path for the White House would be for Obama to announce that Justice needs a clean start to rebuild confidence and that Holder will leave to allow for a new appointee to lead that effort. That, as noted earlier, is why presidents have cabinet officials in the first place – and the longer Obama clings to Holder, the more questions it raises about what the White House gains by his presence and fears in his departure.
Assuming this is a smoke signal from the White House, it indicates that Barack Obama won’t ask Holder to leave, mostly because it would appear too much like the President was buckling under to critics. However, it’s a big hint that the West Wing won’t be too engaged in defending him and would like to see him leave on his own. It’s not quite a shove, at least not yet, put it’s certainly a nudge.