House Republicans Cite Holder for Contempt, Seek to Link Obama to ‘Fast and Furious’

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Attorney General Eric Holder talks to reporters after meeting with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa in the U.S. Captiol June 19, 2012 in Washington, DC.

In an escalating partisan showdown sparked by a Congressional investigation into a botched gun-trafficking sting, House Republicans voted to hold U.S. Attorney Eric Holder in contempt Wednesday for failing to comply with a subpoena related to the ongoing “Fast and Furious” probe. They also sought to link the White House to the burgeoning skirmish as President Obama asserted executive privilege over the documents Republicans sought. 

The party-line vote by a House panel to cite Holder in contempt capped a clash that centers on a trove of documents related to the lengthy “Fast and Furious” investigation spearheaded by Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. For more than a year, Issa has been leaning on Holder to produce information that could shed light on the Justice Department’s role in and knowledge of the Fast and Furious surveillance probe. In that operation, which began in 2006, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives  – employing a controversial tactic known as “gunwalking” — allowed some 2,000 guns to be smuggled across the Mexican border in an attempt to build a sprawling case against the Sinaloa drug cartel. Some of those arms later surfaced at the site of crime scenes, including a fatal firefight in the Arizona desert in December 2010 that ended in the death of a border agent named Brian Terry.

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Issa – a self-styled gadfly of the Administration – and his Republican colleagues have been haggling with Holder for many months to turn over a cache of documents related to the use of gunwalking in Fast and Furious. The Justice Department has released some 7,500 documents pertaining to the case, which Republicans note is a fraction of the total tally. Democrats say that turning over some of the documents in question would be a violation of federal law, since they include grand-jury material and other information germane to an ongoing investigation.

After the Oversight Committee’s 23-17 party-line vote to cite Holder for contempt, the next step is for the full House to take up the matter, which Republican leaders intend to do next week. If the House votes to hold Holder in contempt, the matter would be referred to the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., whom Holder oversees. There is a history of dispute between the executive and legislative branches over whether Congress has the power to compel the prosecution of an executive-branch employee.

In a statement issued after the proceedings, Holder decried the vote as an “election-year tactic” that ignored the significant cooperation he said his department has given to the committee. “Simply put, any claims that the Justice Department has been unresponsive to requests for information are untrue,” he said. “From the beginning, Chairman Issa and certain members of the Committee have made unsubstantiated allegations first, then scrambled for facts to try to justify them later. That might make for good political theater, but it does little to uncover the truth or address the problems associated with this operation and prior ones dating back to the previous Administration.”

Contempt citations themselves are rare – the last time an attorney general faced one was in 1998, when Janet Reno declined to comply with a subpoena related to a campaign-finance issue. Congressional committees have held employees of the Executive Branch in contempt just four times in the past 30 years. Such votes have lately broken along partisan lines, as did a vote to hold Bush consiglieri Karl Rove in contempt just months before the 2008 elections. While agreements to sidestep formal charges are usually hammered out before the skirmish comes to a head, the Fast and Furious investigation has already spiraled far beyond what most people expected.

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Obama’s assertion of executive privilege came Wednesday morning after negotiations between Issa and Holder fell apart during a brief meeting Tuesday night. Holder reportedly wanted assurances that supplying the records would satisfy the subpoena and quash the threat of a contempt vote; getting none, he declined to produce the documents and sent President Obama a letter asking him to invoke executive privilege, which would allow the attorney general to decline to comply with the committee’s demands. Publication of the material, Holder wrote, could have “significant, damaging consequences.” On Wednesday morning, the Justice Department wrote Issa to inform him Obama was invoking executive privilege.

Republicans went ahead with the contempt hearing anyway. A letter outlining the resolution blasted the Justice Department’s “refusal to work with Congress to ensure that it has fully complied with the committee’s effort to compel the production of documents and information related to this controversy is inexcusable and cannot stand. Those responsible for allowing Fast and Furious to proceed and those who are preventing the truth about the operation from coming out must be held accountable for their actions.”

The Fast and Furious probe has been boiling on the right for many months. Until recently, however, the issue was largely the provenance of conservative rank-and-file members and right-wing media outlets. Republican leaders insisted they wanted to stay focused on the economy. The President’s entrance into the fray has elevated the investigation to a topic of all-out partisan warfare.

Though no available information implicates the White House in any wrongdoing, Republicans sought to spin Obama’s decision to intercede as a sign of either complicity or a cover-up. “The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the ‘Fast and Furious’ operation or the cover-up that followed.  The Administration has always insisted that wasn’t the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

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The looming vote created a spectacle in the Rayburn Building on Wednesday morning, when the two parties spent nearly a full work day accusing each other of moral malpractice. Republicans assailed Holder for allegedly stonewalling a valid investigation into an operation that left a border agent dead. Democrats accused the GOP of political gamesmanship meant to embarrass the White House during the summer doldrums of a presidential election year.

Meanwhile, GOP operatives gleefully excavated a 2007 interview in which Obama bashed his Oval Office predecessor for a lack of transparency. “There’s been a tendency on the part of this Administration to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky that’s taking place,” Obama told Larry King. But the charge of hypocrisy – a Romney campaign spokeswoman whacked the President for “just another broken promise” — only makes sense to a degree. This is the first time during his presidency that Obama has invoked executive privilege; he has done so more sparingly than any chief executive in recent history. Bill Clinton asserted executive privilege 14 times, George W. Bush six. Defending the decision, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer called the probe “a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition.”

Regardless of its merit, the hearing Wednesday was shot through with the sort of partisan squabbling that has marked this dysfunctional Congress. For hours, Republicans fulminated about the Justice Department’s alleged malfeasance and renewed calls for Holder to resign. Democrats volleyed back scathing claims of partisan grandstanding; New York Representative Carolyn Maloney called the probe a “political witch hunt.” Republicans apologized to the families of the victims. Democrats apologized for the political theater. The only agreement the two sides had was that somebody was owed an apology for the government’s behavior.

On that count, at least, they were certainly right.

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