President Obama, in an attempt to intervene on behalf of Attorney General Eric Holder, has granted Wednesday a last minute request to exert executive privilege over the Fast and Furious documents that Holder has thus far refused to provide the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
On Tuesday evening, Committee Chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) met with Holder in what some close to the situation describe as a "strained, terse" encounter. Issa wanted to discuss how and when Holder would deliver the materials. Instead, the Justice Department wanted to brief Issa and his staff on the documents without actually handing them over.
The two men could not reach an agreement and Issa remained intent on his plans to move forward with a contempt vote.
"If we receive no documents, we'll go forward [with the contempt vote]. If we receive documents we will evaluate them," Issa told reporters after the meeting.
The issue in question centers on documents requested by Issa's committee that pertain to February 2011 documents that outline how officials at the Justice Department learned about the Fast and Furious investigation that allowed thousands of guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug lords. The intent of the program was to allow U.S. agents to track the weapons, one of which was thought to have killed U.S. Border agent Brian Terry.
But the eleventh hour intervention by the president changed the rules of the game.
Obama's order of executive privilege means the Justice Department can withhold documents from Congress, even if a subpoena has been issued.
Holder's request to President Obama requesting that he grant executive privilege says, "the Committee has not established that privileged documents are demonstrably critical to the responsible fulfillment of the Committee's legitimate legislative functions."
As expected, the standoff is adding fuel to an already explosive partisan battle that will likely play some type of role in the November presidential election. Now House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is suggesting that not only did the Justice Department have knowledge of the situation, but so did the White House.
"Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding 'Fast and Furious' were confined to the Department of Justice. The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the 'Fast and Furious' operation or the cover-up that followed," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel wrote in a statement Wednesday morning.
"The Administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?
Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was equally critical of Holder, the Justice Department and the White House over the use of executive privilege.
"The assertion of executive privilege raises monumental questions," Grassley said in a statement released Wednesday morning. "How can the President assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? How can the President exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?"
Nonetheless, Issa said the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans to move forward with a contempt vote in spite of Obama's intervention. Democrats on the committee have accused their GOP counterparts of conducting a "political witch hunt" while Republicans are accusing Holder of "stonewalling."
If a committee vote is taken and passed, which is expected given that a majority of members are Republican, the issue will then go to the full House. Only then would Holder be held in contempt if there is a majority vote in favor of the order.