President Barack Obama has "full confidence" in Attorney General Eric Holder, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday, brushing aside a growing Republican chorus of calls for the nation's top law-enforcement official to resign or be ousted over the botched Fast and Furious gun-smuggling investigation.
And Carney flatly denied that Obama had invoked executive privilege in order to hide damning documents from Republicans in Congress. "This is entirely about principle," he told reporters at his daily briefing.
The spokesman accused Republicans of using the failed operation to "damage the president politically" and said the escalating constitutional conflict was "political theater."
"What this is about, after all this time and all these documents and all the testimony, is an attempt to score political points," Carney said. "It is this approach I think that explains at least in part why this Congress has the lowest public approval ratings of any in memory, if not history. So that is our view of the matter."
On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted straight down party lines to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding documents related to the Justice Department's handling of the operation's aftermath. Obama invoked executive privilege to shield the documents from Congress. And Republican House Speaker John Boehner said the full House of Representatives would vote next week on the issue unless an accommodation can be found.
"We have been and will continue to be engaged in an effort to resolve this, and await a demonstration of an interest to resolve this in a way that isn't all about political theater," Carney said.
If the full House approves finding Holder in contempt, the matter would be referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. That is unlikely. But the House could take the administration to court over the issue, which could land the volatile dispute before the Supreme Court. In the past, such constitutional disputes have been settled with compromises hashed out behind closed doors.
In invoking executive privilege, the administration asserted that giving lawmakers the requested documents would compromise ongoing investigations and reveal internal executive-branch deliberations. The latter argument turns on the idea that future officials will not offer their best, candid advice to future attorneys general or presidents if they worry that their views can easily be made public. Republicans have darkly insinuated that Obama must be involved, but have provided no evidence for that charge. Past presidents have invoked executive privilege--though not always successfully--to shield internal documents not directly tied to the White House.
The Fast and Furious operation, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), aimed to track the flow of guns from the United States into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. But many firearms went missing and two turned up at the scene of the killing of Customs and Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Both political parties agree that Fast and Furious is a stain on the ATF.
But Republicans have accused Holder of misleading them on what he knew about the operation and when. The Justice Department has already had to retract some misleading information it provided to Congress about Fast and Furious. But the attorney general has blamed Republicans for playing politics by rejecting his offers to make available some of the requested materials. And Obama has rejected Republican calls to dismiss Holder.
Carney worked hard Thursday to distance the White House from Fast and Furious. On five occasions, he noted that the operation had begun in the "field," not Washington. He also insisted that the "tactic" known as gun-walking had originated under President George W. Bush (the operation itself began in late 2009, under Obama).
"The problem of gun-walking was a field-driven tactic that dated back to the previous administration, and it was this administration's attorney general who ended it," Carney said at one point.
The spokesman said Americans hope for action from lawmakers to help create jobs. "They do not expect Congress to waste time on politically motivated fishing expeditions, which this has clearly become," he said.
Carney also noted that the Department of Justice's inspector general is conducting an independent investigation into Fast and Furious.