Barack Obama — after days of awful media coverage, even from his MSM cheerleaders, and an all-out assault from the McCain camp — threw James Johnson under the campaign bus (the pavement now decorated with Tony Rezko, and entire congregation of Trinity United Church). Johnson’s sweetheart loan deal with arch-villain Countrywide Financial Corp. was too much, even for the liberal media to endure and so the ultimate Mr. Fixer got tossed from the vice presidential search committee. But despite the mini-feeding frenzy somehow Eric Holder survived. For the time being.
That Holder is supposed to be sniffing out problematic VP picks may be an even bigger problem for Obama than Johnson. As has been recounted in many news reports Holder, while at the Justice Department, steered the fugitive Rich’s attorney to Jack Quinn, the White House counselor and the very man Holder was seeking to help him get an attorney general slot in the Gore administration. Despite the fact Rich was a fugitive from justice, Holder told the White House he was “neutral, leaning positive” on the pardon.
So Holder, the ran whose own conflict of interest and blindness to the impropriety of pardoning a fugitive (one whose wife had filled the Clinton coffers with donations no less) is now the principle figure sorting out Obama’s VP picks.
At a press conference in June, a diligent ABC reporter asked not just about Johnson but about Rich. Obama responded with his now infamous comment that he doesn’t “vet the vetters.” But if Barack Obama doesn’t, who does? Michelle? Or do they just hire anyone who’s standing around bored?
Unfortunately for Obama, the media has not completely moved on from the vetters even after Johnson was dumped. The American Lawyer did its part this week with this summary of Holder’s role in the pardon application:
In fact, Holder believed the application had such a small shot at being granted that he didn’t give it much thought. But when the White House asked for his view on the pardon he gave it: "neutral leaning towards favorable."
The decision turned out to be a costly one for Holder. On January 20, President Clinton issued 140 pardons, including one for Rich — whose ex-wife turned out to have donated large amounts of money to the Clinton Presidential Library while Clinton was in office. Critics claimed that Rich’s freedom had been bought.
For the first time in his career, Holder faced an assault on his reputation and integrity. He had been the main Justice Department contact for Rich’s lawyer, John Quinn, who was then at Arnold & Porter. The two had known each other well. In fact, sometime before the 2000 election — it’s not clear when — Holder told Quinn, a close confidant of Vice President Al Gore, that he wanted to be attorney general in a Gore administration. (Both men say the conversation had nothing to do with the Rich case.)
And things got worse as the American Lawyer recounted:
The Rich matter reached its nadir for Holder on February 8, 2001, when he was summoned to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Seated next to Quinn, Holder said in his statement that his conscience was clear, though he wished he had done certain things differently. But he also vented frustration at being the fall guy. "I have been angry, hurt, and even somewhat disillusioned by what has transpired over the past two weeks with regard to this pardon," he said.
Holder endured hours of questioning from House members, some of it personal. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), who was chairman of the oversight committee, insinuated that Holder and Quinn had engaged in a quid pro quo. The thing is, you wanted something from Mr. Quinn," said Burton. "You wanted his support for attorney general of the United States, and he wanted a pardon for Mr. Rich and his partner."
It’s no wonder then that the McCain camp has been pummeling Obama for keeping Holder on board. On June 12 McCain took the rare step of directly attacking his opponent, declaring:
"I think people in the media and observers will make a decision as to whether these people, individuals, should be part of Sen. Obama’s campaign. I think it is a matter of record that Mr. Holder recommended the pardoning of Mr. [Marc] Rich."
The McCain camp has been anxious to remind the media and highlight existing stories which question why Holder remains in a role in which his own ethics may make him blind to others questionable dealings, the very key to his role as a VP vetter. The Washington Post recalled:
Holder, one of two remaining members of Obama’s vice presidential search committee, was always expected to be a lightning rod. As Bill Clinton’s deputy attorney general, he was the gatekeeper for presidential pardons. Most famously, he waved through the pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich in the waning days of the Clinton White House. But Republicans — through the Republican National Committee, conservative media outlets like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and aggressive freelance operators — are spreading their net wider.
That “wider net” included Holder’s potential role in other Clinton-era pardons and his role defending discrimination lawsuits for corporate defendants.
But Holder poses an even bigger issue in some regards for Obama than Johnson. Obama, after all, was supposed to be the New Politician who would be free from the Clinton era baggage and avoid the ethical landmines which plagued Bill’s presidency and which turned off Democratic primary voters.
If his own tight knit circle of advisors, including the man who may be the attorney general and who is responsible for the single most important task in Obama’s presidential campaign, is simply a refugee from one of the worst episodes in the Clinton era what’s so new about the new politics? It seems not very much at all.