Report: Holder, Axelrod nearly engaged in White House fisticuffs

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Attorney General Eric Holder nearly came to blows with political strategist David Axelrod after a Cabinet meeting in the White House, according to a new book by a Newsweek investigative reporter.

In Daniel Klaidman’s “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency,” excerpts of which were obtained by Politico’s Mike Allen, Klaidman tells of a heated exchange between the two that almost turned physical in the West Wing.

Klaidman writes that Axelrod, then Obama’s senior adviser, was “incensed” because he had heard that “Holder and his aides were spreading the word that he was trying to improperly influence the Justice Department.”

“Axelrod, who knew all too well that even the hint of White House meddling with Justice Department investigations could detonate a full-blown scandal, had been careful not to come close to that line,” Klaidman writes.

So after a Cabinet meeting ended, Axelrod apparently made a “beeline for the attorney general.”

“’Don’t ever, ever accuse me of trying to interfere with the operations of the Justice Department,’ he warned Holder after confronting him in the hallway,” according to Klaidman’s account.

“’I’m not Karl Rove,’ Axelrod added, referring to George Bush’s political consigliere, who had been accused of pressuring Justice to fire politically unpopular US attorneys.”

But Holder, Klaidman writes, didn’t take the verbal assault well: “Holder did not appreciate being publicly dressed down by the president’s most senior political adviser.”

“Determined to stand his ground against Tammany Hall, the A.G. ripped into him in full view of other White House staffers. ‘That’s bullshit,’ he replied vehemently. The two men stood chest to chest. It was like a school yard fight back at their shared alma mater, Stuyvesant, the elite public high school for striving kids from New York City.”

Ultimately, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett stepped in to break things up.

“Jarrett, whose office was nearby, materialized as things got hot,” Klaidman reports. “Petite and perfectly put together as always, she pushed her way between the two men, her sense of decorum disturbed, ordering them to ‘take it out of the hallway.'”

Klaidman’s book also reveals that Holder was so depressed in 2010 that he considered quitting.

“The loss of his mother, the continuing criticism over [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed], the lashings in the press, and Holder’s sense of isolation within the administration had turned his job into a grind,” Klaidman reports.

“He woke up on many mornings with a knot in his stomach, not sure if he’d be able to make it through the day. … He told [his wife] Sharon [Malone] he didn’t know if he had the emotional strength to go on as attorney general. He thought seriously about returning to his Washington law firm.”

Again, it was Jarrett who intervened, according to Klaidman, ultimately convincing Holder to stay on.

“Few people could talk to Holder as directly as Jarrett could,” writes Klaidman.

“She started by gently telling him, ‘You’re my friend and I care about you. … This will not be good for you and it will not be good for your friend, the president’ … Jarrett didn’t elaborate, but she didn’t have to. Holder understood that if he quit barely two years into Obama’s first term, it would be widely assumed that he was either driven out by Tammany Hall or that he’d quit because he was disillusioned with the administration’s refusal to back him up. His exit would have become a rallying cry for the liberal base of the party and it would damage Obama politically just as the midterm elections were looming. He had to stay.”

Klaidman’s book is set to be released Tuesday.

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