Will government probe of AP phone records cost Eric Holder his job?

Attorney General Eric Holder has alienated Republicans before. But the Justice Department's seizure of AP phone records is generating bipartisan concern.

Molly Riley/AP/File
Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington last month on the Justice Department's fiscal 2014 budget.

Speculation has begun in Washington over whether a massive Justice Department investigation of Associated Press phone records will end up costing Attorney General Eric Holder his job.

Mr. Holder is “a battered survivor of many controversies and this could be the one that finally convinces him or Obama that it is time to go,” the National Journal’s Jill Lawrence writes

Esquire blogger Charles Pierce adds: “He should be gone. This moment. Not only is this constitutionally abhorrent, it is politically moronic.” 

And Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy tweeted, “It is 8:42. The AP phone story broke at 7:50. Why is Eric Holder still attorney general.”

Of course, only the president knows for sure whether Holder will be forced to step down to help quiet the multiple controversies engulfing the administration, which also include its handling of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the IRS’s investigation of conservative political organizations. But the political stakes for the White House are high.  

“The rule of three … means the president’s credibility is truly on the line right now,” NBC’s First Read observes.

Sacrificing Holder might be personally painful to the president. In his book “Kill or Capture” about President Obama’s national security team, Daniel Klaidman notes that Mr. Obama and Holder have become good friends since they met at a dinner party in 2004. And Holder’s wife, obstetrician Sharon Malone, is reportedly very close with first lady Michelle Obama.

Holder has long been controversial, especially with Republicans who voted in June 2012 to hold him in contempt of Congress, the first time a sitting attorney general has been in that position. The issue was Holder’s refusal to turn over certain documents in "Fast and Furious," a botched federal gun sting operation that allowed hundreds of weapons to flow to Mexico, and which resulted in the death of a US federal agent.  

The nation’s top lawyer also has drawn fire for arguing that the US court system is the right place to try terrorists (as opposed to military tribunals at Guantánamo) and for stating in recent congressional testimony that some banks have become “so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them.”

What is different about the controversy over the seizure of the AP’s phone records is the bipartisan nature of the outcry. On Monday the AP, a highly influential news cooperative that serves print, broadcast, and online news outlets, announced that the Justice Department had secretly obtained two months of phone records for reporters and editors in New York, Washington, and Hartford, Conn. The government seized records for more than 20 separate phone lines that were used by more than 100 reporters in April and May 2012.

AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt wrote to Holder calling the  the Justice Department operation a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations do their work. “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of telephone communications,” Mr. Pruitt said.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon Holder said he recused himself from the decision to subpoena the AP's phone records, and that the decision had been made by Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole, who is handling the case. Holder said he stepped aside because he had been interviewed in the investigation into who provided information for a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot that targeted the US. The attorney general said the leak his department was investigating "put the American people at risk."

The Justice Department released a statement defending its actions, saying, “We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations.… Because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement, saying, "I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation." 

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement distancing the White House from the investigation. “We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department.”

On Tuesday, however, he offered Holder some support: "The president has confidence in the attorney general."

Meanwhile, when Holder was asked about his future last month on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, he responded: “I don’t know,” when asked if he would stay the full four years of Obama’s second term. He added, “I’m happy. I’m still enjoying what I’m doing and still want to be done. I’m still the president’s wing man, and I’m here with my boy.”

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