The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over his failure to provide Congress with subpoenaed Operation Fast and Furious documents.
Seventeen Democrats joined most House Republicans in the effort to hold Holder in contempt. Two Republicans — Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell and Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette — voted against the measure and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led a walkout of many members of her caucus.
Pelosi held the hand of House oversight committee ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings — one of Holder’s most ardent defenders — on the way out.
Holder is now in criminal contempt of Congress.
UPDATE 5:30 p.m.: The House has passed a resolution to hold Holder in civil contempt of Congress as well, again with bipartisan support. The civil contempt resolution allows the House to pursue legal recourse to enforce its subpoena because the criminal contempt resolution passed earlier in the day is referred to Holder’s deputy Ron Machen, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for enforcement. Machen isn’t expected to enforce it.
House judiciary committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith said in a statement that the “vote to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress is unprecedented, but unfortunately so are the obstructionist actions of this Justice Department.”
“The Attorney General continues to put himself above the law by refusing to cooperate with legitimate congressional inquiries,” Smith said. “For more than a year and a half, this Administration has blocked inquiries and delayed responses about what really happened in Operation Fast & Furious. The President’s recent assertion of Executive Privilege covers communication between top Executive staff. The Administration cannot claim that top officials were not aware of the program and then assert this privilege. They can’t have it both ways. Either no senior staff was aware of Fast & Furious, in which case Executive Privilege does not apply; or senior staff was aware, which means the Administration has not been truthful with Congress.”
Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh — one of the House members demanding Holder’s resignation — said in a statement that it’s “regretful that it has reached this point.
“Questions have been dodged and left unanswered for way too long,” Walsh said. “Attorney General Holder’s lack of cooperation, accountability, and concern in this investigation is unacceptable. The bottom line is that many lives were lost – on both sides of the border. Today’s vote brings us one step closer to providing answers to Brian Terry’s family and the American people.”
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who’s worked with House oversight committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, said in a statement that this action was necessary to make sure Holder complies with the subpoena.
“When a person dies in service to his country, and his own government may have contributed to his death, covered up evidence about the circumstances, or both, the survivors’ families and the American people have a right to know the truth,” Grassley said. “That was the case with Pat Tillman, and it’s the case with Brian Terry. The government should own up to any policies and practices that led to the harm of Mexican citizens as well. Those who don’t seem to want the truth or accountability default to accusations of political motivation against those seeking answers.”
“Remember, the Justice Department insisted there was no gun-walking, then retracted that statement and reversed itself,” Grassley continued. “The Justice Department is proven unreliable on this topic. The only way to try to get an accurate, complete account of what happened to Agent Terry and why is to obtain every possible record and account of the facts. We can only draw fair, informed conclusions from the complete facts. The fulfillment of the House’s pursuit of complete records from the Justice Department is necessary. Without it, we might never know what happened to Agent Terry. That can’t stand.”
Cummings said he thinks “[t]his is a sad day for our democracy.”
“Today’s contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder is the culmination of one of the most highly politicized and reckless congressional investigations in decades,” Cummings said in a statement. “The Republicans’ actions have undermined the standing of the House, cemented the Speaker’s legacy as extreme, and will be recorded by history as a discredit to this institution.”
Before the resolution passed, House Speaker John Boehner said on the House floor that he doesn’t “take this matter lightly, and I frankly hoped it would never come to this.”
“The House’s focus is on jobs and on the economy,” Boehner said. “But no Justice Department is above the law and no Justice Department is above the Constitution, which each of us has sworn an oath to uphold. So I ask the Members of this body to come together and to support this resolution so that we can seek the answers that the Terry family and the American people deserve.”
Issa said in a statement that “[t]oday, a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for his continued refusal to produce relevant documents in the investigation of Operation Fast and Furious.”
“This was not the outcome I had sought and it could have been avoided had Attorney General Holder actually produced the subpoenaed documents he said he could provide,” Issa said. “The Congressional inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious, and the cover-up by Justice Department officials of wrongdoing, has been a fair and fact based investigation. False and partisan allegations by the White House and some congressional Democrats about the Oversight Committee’s efforts were undermined by the votes of 17 Democrats. These Members resisted the pressure of their own leadership and the Obama Administration to support this investigation on the House floor.”
“Claims by the Justice Department that it has fully cooperated with this investigation fall at odds with its conduct: issuing false denials to Congress when senior officials clearly knew about gunwalking, directing witnesses not to answer entire categories of questions, retaliating against whistleblowers, and producing only 7,600 documents while withholding over 100,000,” Issa continued.
Holder released a statement after being found in criminal contempt, saying he thinks it’s a “regrettable culmination of what became a misguided — and politically motivated — investigation during an election year.”
“By advancing it over the past year and a half, Congressman Issa and others have focused on politics over public safety,” Holder said. “Instead of trying to correct the problems that led to a series of flawed law enforcement operations, and instead of helping us find ways to better protect the brave law enforcement officers, like Agent Brian Terry, who keep us safe — they have led us to this unnecessary and unwarranted outcome.”
After saying that he ended Fast and Furious and gunwalking, Holder said that the congressional vote will spark an “unnecessary court conflict.”
“My efforts to resolve this matter short of such a battle were rebuffed by Congressman Issa and his supporters,” Holder said. “It’s clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or obtaining the information they claimed to seek. Ultimately, their goal was the vote that — with the help of special interests — they now have engineered.”
Holder said he plans to continue on in his post at the Department of Justice regardless.
“Whatever the path that this matter will now follow, it will not distract me or the men and women of the Department of Justice from the important tasks that are our responsibility,” Holder said. “A great deal of work for the American people remains to be done — I’m getting back to it. I suggest that those who orchestrated today’s vote do the same.”
Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, told The Daily Caller that the “contempt vote against the Attorney General underscores the serious nature of his refusal to cooperate with subpoenas issued to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious.”
“The vote sends a powerful message – there are consequences to stonewalling and to providing false and misleading information to Congress,” Sekulow said. “The Attorney General has no one to blame but himself. The American people deserve an Attorney General who serves as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, not an Attorney General who puts politics ahead of the rule of law.”
South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy – who’s been at the center of the Fast and Furious investigation – said that Holder being in criminal and civil contempt of Congress means it’s a “a sad for those of us who believe in the rule of law. The same rules should apply to everyone and the chief law enforcement officer has failed to do so.”
“We should not have to settle, compromise, or find any ‘extraordinary circumstance’ on the amount of documents we are entitled to,” Gowdy added. “We are wrong if we settle for anything less than all the facts.”
Arizona Republican Rep. Ben Quayle – the lead sponsor on a resolution pushing for a resolution for a special prosecutor for Fast and Furious – said Holder “has employed the tactics of delay, denial and obfuscation to avoid any sort of accountability for his disgraceful incompetence” with Fast and Furious and the contempt vote ended up being a “necessary step” in ensuring accountability.
The White House has responded too, accusing House Republicans of political motivations even though both contempt resolutions – the criminal and contempt ones – passed with bipartisan support. “At the beginning of this year, Republicans announced one of their top priorities was to investigate the Administration and to ensure that President Obama was a one-term President,” White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement. “Despite the major economic challenges facing the country, they talked openly about devoting taxpayer-funded, Congressional oversight resources to political purposes.”
Pfeiffer also blamed the Bush administration for Fast and Furious.
“The problem of gunwalking was a field-driven tactic that dated back to the George W. Bush Administration, and it was this Administration’s Attorney General who ended it. Attorney General Holder has said repeatedly that fighting criminal activity along the Southwest Border – including the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico has been is a top priority of the Department,” Pfeiffer said. “Eric Holder has been an excellent Attorney General and just yesterday the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee acknowledged that he had no evidence – or even the suspicion – that the Attorney General knew of the misguided tactics used in this operation.”