Today marks a dramatic turn in the Fast and Furious scandal with the Obama White House announcing this morning that the documents sought by House Republicans are protected from disclosure by executive privilege.
For the first time since news broke of the Department of Justice gun-walking fiasco, the President of the United States is claiming an interest in DOJ’s internal deliberations about a program that purposefully armed Mexican drug cartels and ultimately allowed a drug runner to murder a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
In the short term, the president’s announcement may make House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa’s contempt vote closer than it would have been, if some members decide that an executive privilege claim inoculates Holder from punishment. My guess is that Obama’s announcement will embolden Republicans on the committee to go ahead with the contempt vote and give Democrats a talking point after they lose.
In the long term, today’s executive privilege claim finally elevates Fast and Furious into a surefire campaign topic for the fall. As long as the scandal was defended as a policy decision gone bad – especially one that was until today linked to the previous Republican administration – it was unlikely that conservatives would make Fast and Furious into a campaign theme.
But now that’s changed for two reasons. First, as of today DOJ has rescinded its claim that Bush’s Attorney General Michael Mukasey knew about Fast and Furious, thus admitting that the idea and its consequences belong completely to the Obama administration. Second, Obama’s claim of executive privilege means that he is now claiming ownership of the program.
I suspect that the documents being withheld would make the case for the resignation or impeachment of Eric Holder or another high-ranking DOJ official. Claiming executive privilege helps delay the reckoning, but it opens the door for Mitt Romney and others – most notably Issa and other congressional investigators – to ask White House officials directly – and President Obama indirectly – about the president’s knowledge, involvement, and approval of Fast and Furious.