An inquiry involving the apolitical side of his position — involving a botched gun-trafficking investigation in Arizona — has made the attorney general newly vulnerable to his political opponents. Next week, a House committee could vote to cite him for contempt of Congress, accusing him of withholding information in that case.
That would be the latest in a series of setbacks for Holder, a soft-spoken former judge and close friend of President Obama. He also is facing questions about his oversight of an investigation of national security data leaked to reporters.
Holder is a lightning rod for anger in the administration — viewed by his supporters as a symbol of Obama’s ambitions and by his enemies as a symbol of the president’s aloofness and overreach.
“It’s a politicization of the department,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is considering the contempt finding. “If he were a Republican AG and he were using that office to advance a political agenda, I would be just as critical of him.”
In a tense hearing last week on Capitol Hill — one of nine that Holder has attended over the past year — Gowdy made this argument to him: “I don’t think the attorney general for the United States of America should have any political ideology whatsoever.”
Holder responded by saying he wasn’t the first to plunge the Justice Department into political debates.
“Let’s ask,” he said to Gowdy, mentioning President George W. Bush’s strongly conservative choice for the office. “Do you think John Ashcroft was a conservative?”
Ashcroft, Bush’s first attorney general, was criticized by liberals for allowing more extensive government surveillance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and urging harsher interrogations of suspected terrorists. A successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, resigned after an investigation of politically motivated removals of U.S. attorneys on his watch.
Under Holder, the Justice Department has recorded a number of law enforcement successes and uncovered several alleged plots by terrorist groups. Justice officials have recouped nearly $4.1 billion in health-care fraud.
But the department has also inserted itself into several domestic controversies, often taking on state laws backed by conservatives — such as statutes requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. Justice officials sought to block such laws in Texas and South Carolina, saying they harmed minority groups.
Holder’s department also sued Arizona over its immigration law, saying it might lead to racial profiling. His civil rights division joined the inquiry of the highly charged Trayvon Martin shooting case in Florida. And last month, the department sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County, accusing him of violating the civil rights of Hispanics.