WASHINGTON — Just as the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was about to vote Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena for documents in the flawed Fast and Furious gun-tracking case, President Obama asserted executive privilege and backed up the attorney general’s position in refusing to turn over the material.
The fast-moving events Wednesday morning at the White House and on Capitol Hill significantly ratcheted up a growing constitutional clash between the two branches of the federal government, one that ultimately may not be resolved until it reaches the courts.
The Republican-led committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), will ask the full House for a floor vote holding Holder in contempt and requesting the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., or a special prosecutor to force the attorney general to produce the documents.
“The committee has uncovered serious wrongdoing by the Justice Department,” Issa said of his investigation into Fast and Furious, in which several thousand firearms were deliberately circulated along the Southwest border and ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. “That wrongdoing has cost lives on both sides of the border.”
Moments before the committee hearing, the White House announced that Obama had formally exerted executive privilege in the matter, giving Holder cover from releasing the material to the committee.
“We regret that we have arrived at this point,” Deputy Atty. Gen. James M. Cole told Issa in a letter that arrived on the Hill just before the committee went into session.
He said making the documents public “would have significant, damaging consequences,” but he did not disclose whether Obama has been briefed or had another supervisory role in Fast and Furious.
In a separate letter that Holder wrote to Obama shortly before the committee session, asking for executive privilege, the attorney general said he had “concluded that you may properly assert executive privilege over the documents at issue, and I respectfully request you do so.” Holder also did not mention any involvement by Obama in Fast and Furious.
According to the Obama White House, President George W. Bush asserted executive privilege six times during his two terms, and President Bill Clinton 14 times during his eight years in Washington.
“In fact,” said Eric Schultz, an Obama White House spokesman, “dating back to President Reagan, presidents have asserted executive privilege 24 times. President Obama has gone longer without asserting the privilege in a congressional dispute than any president in the last three decades.”
Republicans said Obama's move raises serious questions.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked how Obama could assert executive privilege "if there is no White House involvement?"
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said Obama's move "implies that White House officials were either involved in the 'Fast and Furious' operation or the cover-up that followed."
"The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?" Brendan Buck said.
Staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report