Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sharply criticized lawmakers Monday for voting to hold him in contempt of Congress last week, saying Republicans have made him a “proxy” to attack President Obama in an election year.

In his first interview since Thursday’s vote, Holder said lawmakers have used an investigation of a botched gun-tracking operation as a way to seek retribution against the Justice Department for its policies on a host of issues, including immigration, voting rights and gay marriage. He said the chairman of the committee leading the inquiry, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), is engaging in political theater as the Justice Department tries to focus on public safety.

“I’ve been doing all of these things all the time Darrell Issa and his band have been nipping at my heels,” a defiant Holder said. “They’ve been nipping, but I’ve been walking.”

The attorney general has long been a lightning rod for Republican lawmakers’ anger toward the Obama administration. But Holder said the debate over documents related to the gun operation, known as “Fast and Furious” — along with the National Rifle Association’s attempts to make it an electoral issue — have made matters worse.

“I’ve become a symbol of what they don’t like about the positions this Justice Department has taken,” he said. “I am also a proxy for the president in an election year. You have to be exceedingly naive to think that vote was about . . . documents.”

The House voted Thursday to make Holder the first sitting attorney general in U.S. history to be held in contempt, after he withheld certain documents that lawmakers have demanded as part of their investigation of Fast and Furious.

As part of the gun operation, run by the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, federal agents watched as more than 2,000 guns hit the streets; their goal was to trace them to a Mexican drug cartel. Two guns linked to the operation were later found at the scene where a Border Patrol agent was killed.

The Justice Department has provided Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee with 7,600 documents on Fast and Furious. Republicans, however, have pressed for more records about the department’s internal deliberations, saying they want to determine who knew about the operation and when. They have also questioned why Obama invoked executive privilege to keep the documents from them.

“As often as [Holder] has tried to cast himself and his other controversies as the reason for the investigation, he still doesn’t acknowledge the simple truth,” Issa said Monday. “The citation for contempt had his name on it because the lawfully issued subpoena for documents issued nine months ago, that his department didn’t comply with, also had his name on it.”

Issa added that Holder “can say over and over that this is all about him, but that isn’t true.”

Defending his actions

In the interview, in a stately fifth-floor conference room at the Justice Department, the attorney general defended his handling of the case, saying that when he found out about Fast and Furious, he ordered an internal investigation, stopped the use of certain tactics in gun cases and made personnel changes. He also reiterated his belief that turning over the documents would have a “chilling effect” on department lawyers who prepare materials for cases.

“I’ve been a line lawyer, and I know what it would mean to think that ‘if I write this, it is going to someday come before a congressional committee,’ ” Holder said.

Those arguments have not resonated with Republicans or with some Democrats. Seventeen moderate Democrats who face tough reelection contests joined the vote against Holder; several said they thought the attorney general was thumbing his nose at the House’s oversight responsibility.

Holder said he was angry about the vote but not surprised. He lamented what he described as an increasingly toxic atmosphere on Capitol Hill, where he has become the target of personal attacks.

“It’s a sad indication of where Washington has come, where policy differences almost necessarily become questions of integrity,” said Holder, a former judge. “I came to Washington in the late ’70s, and people had the ability in the past to have intense policy differences but didn’t feel the need to question the other person’s character. And that’s where we are now in Washington with at least one part of the Republican Party. That’s what they do, almost as a matter of course.”

Even before the latest flare-up on Capitol Hill, there was growing speculation about whether Holder would stay on as attorney general if Obama won reelection this fall. He has come under constant attack from Republicans on domestic policy and national security issues, including his controversial decision, since reversed, to prosecute the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in federal court in New York.

Holder said the contempt vote has not led him to consider stepping down. “If anything, it made me more determined to stay and to continue to fight for the things that I think are important,” he said.

He cited as an example a new law enforcement initiative in cities such as Oakland and Philadelphia to target crime “hot spots” with a surge of police and federal agents.

Shows of support

Holder said that when the House voted to hold him in contempt, he was in New Orleans, where he had traveled with his wife to take their daughter to her college orientation. Since then, he has kept to his schedule, going to three cities and giving speeches on public safety, civil rights and voting rights.

On a personal level, the attorney general said he has been buoyed by a “huge outpouring of support,” including letters and flowers from people around the country, many of whom he doesn’t know. Obama called him from Air Force One after the vote to express his support. Over the weekend, he received a standing ovation at a Stylistics concert in Washington.

As the first African American attorney general, Holder said he does not believe that history will judge him by the contempt vote.

“This seems large in the moment, but the question is, how will this be viewed one year from now, five years from now?” he said. “My bet will be that people are going to remember the stands I took to prevent the disenfranchisement of millions of people, the position I stood for in not defending the Defense of Marriage Act, what we did in protecting the American people, the numbers of people we put in jail and the [terrorist] plots we disrupted.”