We recently wrote about the Attorney General’s communication strategy over the past several weeks, as Republican criticisms of his national security decisions intensified. Holder’s approach had been very low-key — to a fault, his supporters told us — until about two weeks ago, when the Attorney General wrote a pointed letter to Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defending his decision to charge the alleged Christmas Day bomber in the criminal justice system.
The New York Times today has a story that sheds more light on Holder’s messaging since his November announcement that the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other alleged conspirators would be tried in federal court in Manhattan. The plan crumbled in the face of intense criticism, but Holder never reemerged to explain himself — by White House design.
The Times reports:
The White House, wanting to move on quickly, overruled Mr. Holder’s request for more public appearances to explain the decision, administration officials said. In the resulting vacuum, critics denounced the civilian trial plan as a soft-on-terror capitulation to liberals.
Two weeks ago, probably just before the Feb. 3 letter to McConnell, Holder met with White House advisers “to discuss how to unite against common foes,” as the Times describes the meeting. The advisers agreed to let Holder speak out more — as we noted, he has not appeared on a Sunday talk show since his confirmation and has given few extended interviews, until this point — and Holder agreed to allow the White House to help sharpen his message.
Holder told the Times in an interview last week that the political attacks were “starting to constrain my ability to function as attorney general.”
“I have to do a better job in explaining the decisions that I have made,” he said, adding, “I have to be more forceful in advocating for why I believe these are trials that should be held on the civilian side.”
The Times story begins with an anecdote that highlights Holder’s shifting views of his role as department spokesman. (It also touches on his strained relationship with David Ogden, who stepped down as Holder’s deputy this month.)
After Holder gave a speech last year calling the United States a “nation of cowards” for avoiding discussions on race, President Obama distanced himself the remark. But his advisers went much further. According to the Times:
Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina, the White House chief and deputy chief of staff, proposed installing a minder alongside Mr. Holder to prevent further gaffes — someone with better “political antennae,” as one administration official put it.
When he heard of the proposal at a White House meeting, Mr. Holder fumed; soon after, he confronted his deputy, David W. Ogden, who knew of the plan but had not alerted his boss, according to several officials. Mr. Holder fought off the proposal, signaling that his job was about the law, not political messaging.
His most important plan — to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, in federal court in Manhattan — collapsed before it even began, after support from the public and local officials withered.
A year later, he is no longer so certain.
It appears we’ll be seeing a lot more of the Attorney General.