That ended this week, when Holder stood before the cameras to say his plan was dead. He had lost the debate, and worse, he was publicly announcing a decision he clearly opposed. Visibly frustrated, he abruptly ended the news conference and left the stage.
Since he was nominated more than two years ago, Holder has occupied a unique place in the Obama administration. Perhaps more than any other Cabinet member, he has been a target for Republican attacks. Yet he enjoys a close relationship with President Obama and will be known to history as the nation’s first black attorney general.
Even as he announced Monday that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators will be tried before a military commission at the Guantanamo Bay prison instead of in Manhattan federal court, Holder was unbowed.
“Look, I grew up in New York City, you know?” he said. “ . . . It is still my view that the case could have been tried in Manhattan.”
Holder’s words reflected his frustration that others didn’t agree, as well as his certainty — honed over more than two decades as a prosecutor, judge and private lawyer — that his path was the right one, according to law enforcement officials and people close to him.
The attorney general first announced in November 2009 the planned prosecution of Mohammed and his co-defendants in New York, a key change from the policies of the George W. Bush administration. Monday’s announcement not only reversed that plan but was a major blow to the administration’s efforts to close the detention center in Cuba.
“He is comforted by the fact that he still believes he was dead-on right, and he believes that’s how history will record it,” said Reid Weingarten, a Washington lawyer and close Holder friend. He said that Holder’s demeanor at the news conference “was just frustration” and that the opposition of some White House staffers and congressional Democrats to his plan for federal trials “sort of adds to that.”
Inside the Justice Department, the prevailing emotion on Tuesday, from the attorney general on down, was relief. Officials said the uncertainty about the trials had hampered their ability to draw attention to other priorities, such as a crackdown on health-care and financial fraud and the fight against violent crime.
“It’s liberating in a lot of ways,” said one Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
On Capitol Hill, where Republican critics of the administration offered measured praise of the decision to try Mohammed at Guantanamo Bay, Holder’s sharp words for Congress did not go unnoticed. The attorney general on Monday blamed legislators for erecting barriers to bringing detainees to the United States.