A new book tells the tale of a furious David Axelrod confronting Attorney General Eric Holder about whispers that the former White House senior adviser was trying to plant a political operative within Holder’s Justice Department.
So who is the man that supposedly nearly sparked a scrum in the White House?
Chris Sautter is a political communications veteran and former associate of Axelrod’s. For nearly three years he worked as the political director of the Washington, D.C.-based Axelrod Associates, a political media firm. From 1988, when the office opened, to 1991, Sautter worked with clients such as Ohio Attorney General Lee Fisher, Indiana Democratic Rep. Frank McCloskey and Indiana Rep. Jill Long Thompson.
Sautter told Main Justice that Axelrod contacted him in April 2009 about a possible senior communications position within the Justice Department. He told his friend that he did have an interest. But Axelrod then told him later on that the department wasn’t interested at the time and that the opportunity wasn’t going to work out, Sautter said.
“I assume that David was interested in putting somebody in there who had some experience with communications — maybe he thought that was lacking,” Sautter said.
Axelrod’s attempt to shape Justice Department communications came amid a backdrop of controversy that was just starting to engulf Holder.
A month before Axelrod approached Sautter, President Barack Obama had publicly chided Holder for what became known as his “Nation of Cowards” speech, in which he said Americans needed to talk more candidly about race. Obama, by contrast, seemed to be going out of his way to avoid talking about race, despite making history as America’s first black president.
Over the next year, Holder would clash with White House operatives who felt he wasn’t doing enough to protect the president politically on issues like national security. Holder’s communications came under scrutiny as he took frequent beatings from conservatives.
Holder’s inner circle at the Justice Department, on their part, was sensitive to perceived political meddling that might compromise the department’s role as an independent law enforcer. Everyone remembered the painful recent past of George W. Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, who resigned amid allegations that partisan politics had driven law enforcement decisions.
Axelrod told CNN that he did suggest a new communications adviser for the Justice Department, but he said he never spoke to the Attorney General about “issues of policy in the Justice Department.”
Sautter, who is also a lawyer, said he didn’t know he was mentioned in former Newsweek editor Daniel Klaidman’s new book “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency” until a reporter called him about the passage a couple weeks ago. Sautter said he does not know anything about the supposed dust-up in the White House between Axelrod and Holder, in which Axelrod reportedly went chest-to-chest with Holder over whispers that the campaign strategist was attempting to place a “minder” on the Attorney General’s staff. Axelrod reportedly said he had been careful not to overstep the boundary between the White House and the department, knowing such a move could “detonate a full-blown scandal.”
Sautter said the only contact he had about the position was the mention of an opportunity from Axelrod that did not pan out. He also said he did not seek the position.
Sautter is also an adjunct faculty member at American University teaching election law. He graduated in the late 1970s from Antioch School of Law, which is now known as the University of D.C.’s David A. Clarke School of Law.
Sautter said Klaidman did not contact him about the matter described in the book.
“I had no prior reason to believe I might be mentioned in a book about the administration,” Sautter wrote in an email. “David Axelrod has not mentioned the incident to me since our brief interaction about my possible interest in a DOJ job in the spring of 2009.”
In 1992, Sautter opened his own political communications firm, producing media for several high-profile Democratic candidates, namely President Barack Obama.
He has worked with EMILY’s List, an organization aimed at electing pro-choice women. He’s also served as the political director for Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) in his 1992 bid for president and a member of the national staff for Illinois Democratic Sen. Paul Simon’s 1988 presidential campaign.
He has served as special counsel to the Democratic National Committee on campaign finance reform. He’s advised Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee on contested elections. On top of this, Sautter is an award-winning documentarian, and he has directed films focused on politics and the music industry.
Holder told the House Judiciary Committee recently that the episode between himself and Axelrod didn’t go down as described in the book. He said Axelrod, who left the White House in early 2011 to help run Obama’s re-election campaign, is a friend and that the campaign strategist has never done anything that he would consider inappropriate.
“We talked about ways in which we might improve the ability of the Justice Department to respond to political attacks that were coming my way,” the Attorney General said. ”David Axelrod and I are good friends … but he’s never done anything that I would consider inappropriate.”