The president’s Eric Holder dilemma


J. Scott Applewhite/AP

After Eric Holder became the first U.S. attorney general to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives last summer, he was asked whether he had considered stepping down. He hadn't. “If anything," he told the Post's Sari Horowitz at the time, "it made me more determined to stay and to continue to fight for the things that I think are important."

One has to wonder if the grilling Holder has received this week makes him feel any different. The embattled attorney general—under fire for his department's highly controversial move to secretly obtain phone records of AP reporters and editors as part of a leak investigation—was at times combative, testy and insistent about his lack of knowledge in a House committee testimony Wednesday. He called Rep. Darrell Issa's questioning and conduct "unacceptable" and "shaming." In an exchange with Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) he said, "you may not like me, but I am the attorney general."

For now, at least. In the aftermath of the AP records and IRS scandals, the real question will not be whether Eric Holder wants to stay in his job, but whether President Obama should keep him there. Already, calls for his resignation are coming from both conservative and liberal voices. RNC Chairman Reince Preibus has demanded that Holder resign. There are also left-leaning columnists like the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky who are doing the same. Esquire's Charles P. Pierce, a caustic critic of the GOP, perhaps put it most bluntly: "He should be gone. This moment. Not only is this constitutionally abhorrent, it is politically moronic."

The decision will be a difficult one for the president. The two are reportedly friends, as are their wives. Asking for Holder's resignation could make the president look like he is bowing to pressure from the GOP, no matter how many critics on the left the attorney general may now also have. Replacing him would surely lead to its own drawn-out confirmation process. And the president may believe that Holder, having recused himself from the probe, is not technically responsible for what the AP has called "a massive and unprecedented intrusion" into news gathering techniques and what the New Yorker has questioned as a breach of the Justice Department's guidelines.

One thing is certain: The trifecta of scandals—Benghazi, the IRS and the AP records—are a major distraction for the president. If Washington and the public remain consumed with what's been called "scandalmania," the resignation of the IRS's acting commissioner may not be a big enough scalp to pacify the president's critics. Yet ultimately, of course, the president needs to make decisions based on who will allow him to most effectively govern, rather than on political calculations. And if comments Obama made Thursday about his "complete confidence" in his attorney general are any indication, that person would appear to be Holder.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The trio of scandals engulfing the White House

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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