On paper, Thursday’s vote on a resolution finding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress is about a subset of internal Justice Department documents and whether such executive branch communications are subject to legislative oversight.
In reality, as Democrats argue, and even some Republicans will admit, the vote is about much more: Targeting a top administration official who has been a long time target of the GOP’s ire.
Whether it is his initial decision to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammed in federal court in New York City, or to reopen an investigation into torture during the Bush administration, or DOJ’s legal opposition to state voting restrictions, or their refusal to defend a federal law banning same-sex marriage, Holder has been a lighting rod for much of his tenure.
But it’s an issue that caused problems for Holder in the first months of the Obama administration — gun control — that overshadows the entire vote over what is theoretically a deep-in-the-weeds debate over the limits of executive power.
Complicating the matter is the fact that the Justice Department was, at the time Fast & Furious documents were sent to Congress, working on a separate gun safety initiative in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords.
TPM’s review of recently disclosed public documents show that Holder, who was told by the White House to stop talking about the assault weapons ban in early 2009, appears to have played a larger role in the early 2011 project than publicly acknowledged.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), which referred to President Barack Obama as “gun ban Obama” during the 2008 campaign and claims that the administration has a secret plot to single-handedly destroy the Second Amendment if he is reelected, is warning members of the House that voting against contempt will cost them points on the NRA’s candidate evaluations. While the organization has promoted the conspiracy theory that the Obama administration launched Fast and Furious to inflate statistics about how many guns were going to Mexico, the NRA’s evaluations can mean a lot to Democratic members, especially those in swing districts.
The documents DOJ hasn’t turned over — the ones Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) says he wants — were written after DOJ sent a letter to Congress on Feb. 4, 2011 that falsely claimed that ATF wasn’t purposefully allowing weapons to “walk.”
This week, Justice Department officials again met with GOP aides to offer a compromise: They’d turn over the post-Feb. 4 documents if the contempt vote was called off. They brought a sampling of about 30 pages of the post-Feb. 4 documents they said demonstrated there was no cover-up. Issa and representatives of House Speaker John Boehner rejected the deal.
While DOJ has claimed executive privilege on documents in the post-Feb. 4 timeframe, calendar entries proactively published by the Attorney General’s office show that Holder was meeting with with gun control supporters in and out of Congress.
Holder met with the board of the the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in his conference room on Feb. 8, 2011 and called Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to discuss “gun safety legislation” on Feb. 10.
After telling DOJ’s Inspector General to investigate the allegations about “Fast and Furious” on Feb. 28, Holder met with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy on March 1, attended a private meeting with President Obama and Mexican President Calderon on March 3 and met with Sen. Frank Lautenberg in his office on March 29. At the time, Lautenberg and McCarthy were sponsoring legislation to ban the type of high-capacity gun clips used in the Giffords shooting.
One of the attendees at the Brady Campaign meeting told TPM that the organization was disappointed with the administration’s work to combat gun violence.
“We were obviously making a pitch for more active involvement by the administration, pushing to strengthen our gun laws,” Dennis Henigan, one of the attendees, told TPM.
At the time of the meeting the administration still hadn’t approved a measure require dealers in four border states to report sales of multiple rifles to the ATF (as they are already required to do with handgun sales). Henigan said that showed the administration was willing to cross the NRA.
“It shows some willingness to make the gun lobby angry, but our view is that the administration has nothing to gain politically by [appeasing] the NRA,” Henigan said.
It isn’t clear where the DOJ initiative, which was publicly acknowledged in March 2011, stands today. The Daily Beast reported last summer that the low-key effort included making background checks simpler and faster, the long-gun reporting requirement and stiffer penalties for so-called “straw purchasers.”
Henigan said he doesn’t believe the Obama administration’s decision to assert executive privilege had nothing to do with a worry that disclosing such documents would allow conspiracy theorist to entangle Holder’s meetings with the Brady Campaign with deliberations about the response to congressional inquiries about Fast and Furious.
“I just can’t imagine that concern about these conspiracy theories have motivated anything this administration has done, because they are so divorced from reality,” Henigan said. “They’re in the same categories as the birthers, in my judgement.”