POLITICS: PennAve

President Obama's 'wing man' Eric Holder will likely stay on as attorney general until the AP and Fox scandals settle down

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Politics,White House,Senate Judiciary Committee,Justice,Fox News,Eric Holder,PennAve,Susan Crabtree

President Obama's 'wing man' will likely stay on as attorney general until the AP and Fox scandals settle down

So why is Attorney General Eric Holder so cool, calm and seemingly secure in his job?

After all, he is at the center of a burgeoning scandal over the abuse of civil liberties by his Justice Department.

And Justice did not just snoop on anonymous citizens. It monitored more than 20 private phone lines of Associated Press reporters and editors, as well as the phone and email records of Fox News reporter James Rosen in an attempt to plug national security leaks.

Holder said he didn't know anything about Justice going after journalists for reporting classified information but later it was revealed that Holder himself approved the Justice Department investigation of Rosen.

Republicans called for Holder's scalp and even some on the left - Arianna Huffington, Bill Press and former Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, to name just a few - wanted him gone.

Through it all, Holder has projected a what-me-worry attitude. The idea of leaving his post in shame never seems to have crossed his mind.

During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Holder even went on offense, personally attacking Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republicans who has been his chief antagonist. He accused the congressman of conducting himself in an "unacceptable and shameful" way.

Friends and observers say there's one big reason for his cool-under-fire response: his close personal friendship with Obama. A few months ago he told radio talk-show host Tom Joyner that he was the president's "wing man."

It's no secret that Holder enjoys the closest relationship to Obama than any cabinet member, and Michelle Obama and Holder's wife, Sharon Malone, are also friends. The two couples go out to dinner from time to time. Michelle Obama, as well as Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior adviser, grew to respect and admire Holder when he served as a senior legal adviser during the 2008 campaign.

Their deep bond also transcends friendship. Obama is the first black president and he chose Holder as the first black attorney general. Malone, an obstetrician, is the sister of the late Vivian Malone Jones, famous for her iconic role in the integration at the University of Alabama.

"Gov. Wallace blocked her from enrolling, stopping her at the door," said Jamie Gorelick, who preceded Holder as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. "That's personal -- that has got to be a central part of how he and Sharon see themselves and what they concern themselves with in their lives."

Holder made no bones about his intentions when he took over at Justice, memorably declaring that the Civil Rights Division was "back in business." But the same fervor has stoked criticism that Holder dropped voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party for racially motivated reasons.

Holder's rocky tenure as attorney general has surprised some in Washington who remember him as a mild-mannered careerist who joined the Justice Department in 1976 and served 12 years as a prosecutor before President Reagan appointed him to be an associate judge on the D.C. Superior Court in 1988.

Five years later, President Clinton plucked him to be U.S. attorney for D.C. where he took over the prosecution on then-Rep. Dan "Rosty" Rostenkowski, the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee who was ultimately charged with 17 counts of corruption.

The goodwill from the right vanished, however, after Holder recommended that Clinton pardon Marc Rich, a billionaire financier who had fled the country rather than face tax evasion charges and making illegal deals with Iran during the hostage crisis. Holder has since said he regrets the decision and was ill-informed, an assertion critics dispute.

Some point to the Rich pardon as an early sign that Holder, despite all his years in Washington, is politically tone deaf.

"Eric is not as political as people think he is - it's sort of shocking," said Joe DiGenova, a prominent Republican who also served as U.S. attorney for D.C. and has known Holder for years and likes him personally.

Others argue Holder is simply taking the hits that Obama would otherwise absorb for the administration's most controversial policies.

"He's the lightning rod for disagreements with the president's policies...part of his job is to deflect controversy from the president," said Bob Bennett, a longtime Washington attorney who represented Rostenkowski in the corruption case.

To the frustration of his critics, the latest string of controversies may actually have extended Holder's tenure as the nation's top lawman. He was never planning to stay for Obama's full two terms and many expected him to step down shortly after Obama's new national security team settled into their roles.

But no one in Washington wants to leave on a low note, and with the media and Congress demanding answers on an array of government spying revelations, Holder will likely be hanging around the halls of Main Justice for months, if not years, to come.

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