Eric Holder, former U.S. attorney general, attends the 2016 Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit at Gerald W. Lynch Theatre on Jan. 29 in New York City. (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. yesterday used a criminal justice conference in New York City to settle some scores with political rivals with whom he’d clashed during his six and a half years of service in the Obama administration. In a series of comments heavy with scorn, Holder took on congressional Republicans for their role in blocking gun control measures in the wake of the Newtown massacre and for obstructing Obama’s efforts to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But Holder reserved his most stinging comments for those who opposed his decision to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in New York, a decision that the White House reversed under bipartisan pressure from members of Congress and New York politicians. “I was mad then, I’m mad now. … I was damn right and the people who opposed me were damn wrong,” Holder told Tina Brown, who interviewed him at the American Justice Summit.
Holder singled out Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., for placing politics above national security and implored New Hampshire voters to ask her about the issue on the campaign trial where she is engaged in a tight re-election race. Without naming names, Holder said that multiple Republicans have said that they received their “biggest applause lines” in calling out Holder for affording the same due process rights enjoyed by all Americans to the 9/11 defendants. But Holder said the fact that KSM’s case remains mired in the military justice system with no signs of going to trial after more than six years proves that he was right, and his critics were wrong. If the decision to try the 9/11 defendants in civilian court had stood, Holder told Brown, “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his confederates would be on death row right now instead of waiting for their first pre-trial hearing.”
Eric Holder talks with Tina Brown at Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit on Jan. 29 in New York City. (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
Holder was equally caustic about Congress’s lack of action in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting that left 20 school children and six adults dead. He called his visit to the Connecticut school, where he saw the blood-spattered walls directly below the art work of first-graders, “the worst day” of his tenure as attorney general. He added that if the American people had seen the what he had seen, “even the cowards in our Congress would have been forced to do the right thing.”
But Holder also acknowledged that the Obama administration should shoulder some of the blame for its failure to achieve meaningful gun-safety legislation. “I do think in retrospect we should have pushed harder,” Holder said in response to a question about why the administration did not make guns a priority during President Obama’s first term. And Holder called the issue “my biggest failure … especially in light of the mass shootings we saw all the time.”
Holder also spoke out passionately about the need to bolster voter protections in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Holder put the trend toward instituting voter ID laws in starkly political terms. “It’s an attempt to retard the growth of, let’s be honest, the Obama coalition, which is very scary to some people.” He observed that elements of the country are unsettled by the major demographic changes taking place, pointing out that the United States will no longer be majority white by 2043.
He was subdued but more somber when the questions turned to the frayed relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community, a major focus of the conference. Holder recalled his visit to Ferguson, Mo., and the shock of learning how under siege black residents felt by the police. “It was striking not to hear almost any defenders of law enforcement” there, he said. He also retold his own experience of being racially profiled by law enforcement. One evening, he and his cousin were late for a movie in the affluent Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown. As they were running toward the theater, the police ordered them to stop, shined a light in their faces and asked what they were doing. Guilty of “being black and running to a movie” in a white neighborhood, Holder said dryly. At the time he was a young federal prosecutor.
The conference was the second annual American Justice Summit, which explores efforts to reform the criminal justice system and is put on by Tina Brown Live Media. This year’s summit was held at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Scroll to 5:57 to watch the Eric Holder interview with Tina Brown.