Obama and his teary attorney general at Holder's resignation announcement Thursday. Photo by White House photographer Pete Souza
US Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that he is stepping down from his position at the Department of Justice, signaling an end to a turbulent six-year run as the nation’s top law enforcement official. A close friend and confidant of President Obama, Holder has been around since the beginning of the administration, making him one of the longest-serving attorneys general in US history. He’s also been one of the most influential, leaving behind a mixed record on the country’s most divisive legal questions.
That Holder has managed to last this long is something of a mystery. Since taking office, he’s been a near constant headache for the White House—a polarizing and politically tone-deaf dud at the center of almost every controversy the president faced during his first term. Republicans hate Holder viscerally and with a passion that Democrats can’t understand, and have been demanding his resignation for years. (He’s the only cabinet member to ever have been held in contempt of Congress.) Holder himself has been plotting his escape for at least two years, although the administration said Thursday that he would stay on until the Senate confirms his successor, a process that could take months.
Despite his missteps, though, it’s hard to imagine another attorney general having the kind of impact Holder has had during his six years in office. His legacy is a reflection of the hopes and disappointments of Obama’s presidency. As the nation’s first black attorney general, he has spoken about race in ways that Obama couldn't or wouldn’t and taken on civil rights issues that have typically been the purview of liberal activists. But he’s also helped the administration run roughshod over civil liberties, and has been legitimately criticized for failing to prosecute banks involved in the 2009 economic meltdown.
Unlike his boss, Holder is not at all shy about race. In February 2009, barely a month into his job as attorney general, Holder blindsided the White House with a Black History Month speech excoriating Americans for being squeamish about racial issues. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” he told an audience of employees at the Department of Justice (DOJ). The comment, however obvious or true it may have been, set off a political shitstorm, permanently branding Holder as a political liability.
But it also set the stage for what would become the driving cause of Holder’s time in office. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Holder’s legacy on civil rights. He has revitalized the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, which he's called the “crown jewel” of the department, and which had been gutted during the George W. Bush administration. He made enforcing the Voting Rights Act a top priority, and vowed to respond aggressively after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in that law last year. Since then, Holder has gone on offense against states that move to restrict voter rights, suing Texas and North Carolina over new legislation that the DOJ claims disproportionately hurt minorities and the elderly.
Holder has also emerged as a powerful advocate for protecting minorities against institutional racism and abuses of power by the criminal justice system. His DOJ has investigated about 20 police departments accused of civil rights violations and cracked down on discrimination and use of excessive force by law enforcement officers. And in what turned out to be his swan song, Holder was dispatched to Ferguson, Missouri, last month to reassure the restive city that the DOJ would conduct a full investigation into the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white policeman.
The War on Drugs
It’s hard to talk about racial injustice without talking about the war on drugs, and in that area, Holder’s record has been more mixed. Under his leadership, the DOJ continued to implement harsh, and ultimately ineffective, drug policies, including a massive crackdown on legal medical marijuana dispensaries and their patients.
Recently, though, Holder has taken a softer approach, backing changes in national sentencing guidelines to lower prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and urging Congress to pass more sweeping reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing. In an interview with Yahoo! News’s Katie Couric released Thursday, he signaled that he might even be open to rescheduling marijuana as a less dangerous drug.
One of the most maddening failures of Holder’s tenure has been his unwillingness to go after those responsible for the 2008–2009 housing crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. Despite intense pressure from the left and sporadic promises from Obama, Holder has failed to press criminal charges against any financial executives involved in the crisis. In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee last year, the attorney general said that prosecuting institutions involved in the meltdown would damage the financial system, a position his critics say amounts to making the banks “too big to jail.” He’s since walked back the comments, but still hasn’t put any Wall Street execs in handcuffs. Instead, the DOJ has been reaching settlements with banks that result in huge penalty payments, but don’t require institutions to admit any wrongdoing. Often, the agreements even allow banks to skirt civil charges, effectively leaving no trace of whatever abuses they were accused of committing.
The War on Terror
Holder has also faced intense criticism for his record on civil liberties, and particularly for his role in rubber stamping the Obama administration’s secretive counterterrorism strategies. As attorney general, he has defended the legality of drone strikes—including those that target US citizens—without judicial review, and tried for years to keep the memos detailing those justifications secret. He’s also aggressively cracked down on national security leaks, ordering surveillance of more than 20 journalists and prosecuting whistleblowers suspected of providing information to the media.
While Obama will go down in history as the first president to “evolve” on gay marriage, the credit should really go to Holder. As attorney general, he led the administration’s gradual embrace of same-sex marriage, first by refusing to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in court, and more recently by using his powers to give gay married couples more legal rights.
Fast and Furious:
Republicans in Congress have always reserved a special hatred for Holder, but the relationship really hit rock bottom over Fast and Furious, a botched gun-smuggling operation that involved agents with the DOJ’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms letting straw purchasers buy firearms in Arizona and then tracking the guns back across the border to Mexico in an effort to identify cartel arms trafficking networks. It was an undeniably stupid idea, made stupider by the fact that the DOJ wasn’t entirely truthful about it when Congress asked about the operation in 2011. The battle has devolved from there, with House Republicans voting in 2012 to hold Holder in contempt of Congress over the scandal. Unbelievably, the case is still making its way through the courts.
At this point, there has been little indication of who Obama might nominate to take over from Holder, and administration officials have suggested that the announcement may not happen for the next few weeks. But whoever is chosen—and whoever withstands what's likely to be a contentious confirmation battle—it's unlikely that anyone the president picks will be able to follow up with the kind of impact and controversy that Holder has generated these last six years.
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