Politics & Policy

Obama’s Enforcer

(Eric Holder: Getty Images)
Eric Holder’s tenure in the Justice Department has been marked by scandal after scandal.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is adapted from John Fund and Hans A. von Spakovsky’s new book, Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department gave bad advice to President Obama and the Pentagon in the controversial Bergdahl prisoner trade that the president could ignore federal law requiring prior notification to Congress. This is just the latest example of how Holder helps the administration ignore the rule of law and crafts his “legal” opinions based on the desired political outcome, not the actual state of the law.

Under Eric Holder, the Justice Department has stood the old Ronald Reagan maxim “trust but verify” on its head and adopted a “trust and we won’t let you verify” approach to its activities.

Even Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, has said that “the Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.”

How much is the Justice Department’s uncooperative and secretive approach the product of Eric Holder’s management style and how much is in response to President Obama’s wishes? We would argue that the most likely explanation is that a president almost always appoints the attorney general he’s most comfortable with, someone who will watch his back on institutional issues and vigorously pursue his enforcement priorities. In Eric Holder, Barack Obama has found both a kindred spirit and a heat shield against criticism that would often be directed at the White House. And Holder has made it clear that he is “part of the president’s team.”

Eric Holder and Barack Obama first met in November 2004, at a small Washington dinner party celebrating Obama’s election to the Senate that month hosted by Ann Walker Marchant, a niece of Vernon Jordan and a former Clinton-administration White House aide. “Obama sat next to Eric Holder, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration. The two found they had much in common — they were lawyers, they had gone to Columbia University, and they were basketball enthusiasts. The party was the start of a continuing Holder-Obama relationship,” reported Newsday. “We just clicked,” said Holder.

Holder was expected to support Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, but his meeting with Obama changed everything. “Loyalty is something I value an awful lot. And so my decision to support Barack was not necessarily a difficult one, but I had to be really moved by him. My inclination would be to support Senator Clinton, but I was overwhelmed by Barack,” he told American Lawyer magazine in 2008. He added that when it came to race, he and Obama “share a worldview.” Holder also became close to Valerie Jarrett, a highly influential, highly political Obama adviser. In fact, Jarrett said in 2008 about Holder that “there isn’t a day that we don’t talk.” 

By the summer of 2008, Holder was “the utility infielder for Team Obama” and was a key player in the search committee that settled on Delaware senator Joe Biden to be Obama’s vice-presidential running mate. Holder was Obama’s first and only pick to be attorney general.

Why does it matter who runs the U.S. Justice Department? Because that person heads one of the most powerful executive-branch agencies in the federal government — one that has enormous discretionary power to pursue people accused of breaking the law and to exert major influence over social, economic, and national-security policies by the choices he makes in enforcement. It requires someone who understands that while the attorney general is a political appointee, he (or she) has a sworn duty to uphold the Constitution and enforce the law in an objective, nonpolitical manner. One of Holder’s own friends, a former DOJ official, told GQ that Holder’s weakness is his “instinct to please.” Holder “doesn’t have to be told what to do — he’s willing to do whatever it takes. It’s his survival mechanism in Washington.” 

#page#In 2013, the Justice Department had a budget of almost $27 billion and 114,000 employees. It has more employees today than it has ever had in its history, with a sharp increase in the number of staff occurring during the Obama administration. In essence, the Justice Department is the largest law-enforcement agency in the world, with investigators and agents, lawyers, and prison officials all combined in one government department.

The Justice Department’s motto, contained on the seal of the department, is “Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur.”  It has been roughly translated to refer to the Attorney General as he who “prosecutes on behalf of justice.” But as we outline in our book, Eric Holder seems to have changed that motto so that it can be read to mean “the attorney general prosecutes on behalf of his political and ideological allies.” Eric Holder is almost certainly the most liberal attorney general of the modern era, but he has also liberally bent the rule of law and established internal practices that harm the cause of justice. His tenure at the Justice Department has been marked by one scandal after another and abusive behavior by Justice Department lawyers in unwarranted, ideologically driven prosecutions.

Holder is the first attorney general in history to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives for his unjustified refusal to turn over documents related to what may be the most reckless law-enforcement operation of the Justice Department ever conducted: Operation Fast and Furious. He has launched more investigations and prosecutions of leaks than any prior attorney general, yet he has studiously ignored high-level “friendly leaks” by White House officials in the Obama administration.

Holder has racialized the prosecution of federal discrimination laws and led an unprecedented attack on election-integrity laws, thus making it easier for people to commit voter fraud and facilitating the election of members of his political party. His handling of national-security issues has been dismal and he has filled the career ranks of the Justice Department with political allies, cronies, and Democratic-party donors, in clear violation of civil-service rules. Holder has treated Congress with contempt and has done everything he can to evade its oversight responsibilities by misleading, misinforming, and ignoring members of Congress and its committees. Holder has attacked pro-life protesters, trying to use federal power to restrict their First Amendment right to speak, has prosecuted American companies for engaging in behavior that is routinely done by government officials, and has on numerous occasions ignored his duty to defend the law and to enforce statutes passed by Congress.

For these reasons and many others, former career lawyer Christopher Coates, who served in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, says that in his opinion, “Holder is the worst person to hold the position of attorney general since the disgraced John Mitchell, who went to jail as a result of the Watergate scandal.”

— John Fund is the national affairs correspondent at National Review Online and Hans A. von Spakovsky is a former Justice Department official and contributor at National Review Online. This article is adapted from their new book Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department (HarperCollins/Broadside June 10, 2014).

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