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Eric Holder weathers uproar amid speculation on future

The White House has publicly backed Eric Holder, but some in the West Wing privately wish he would step down.

Christopher Gregory/The New York Times

The White House has publicly backed Eric Holder, but some in the West Wing privately wish he would step down.

WASHINGTON — At the end of last year, with the election decided and the Obama administration in office for four more years, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. considered stepping down.

He decided against it, in part because before he left he wanted to move beyond the disputes that had marked his tenure, accomplish some of the goals he had set for the job, and leave on his own terms.

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If Holder really thought he could escape controversy, the last few weeks have reinforced how inescapable controversy has become for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

A furor over leak investigations and the seizure of phone records from reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News have again engulfed the attorney general in allegations, investigations and calls for resignation.

Over the course of 4½ years, no other member of President Obama’s Cabinet has been at the center of so many polarizing episodes or the target of so much incoming fire.

While the White House publicly backed Holder as he tried to smooth over the latest uproar amid new speculation about his future, some in the West Wing privately wish he would step down, viewing him as politically maladroit. But the latest attacks may stiffen the administration’s resistance in the near term for fear of emboldening critics.

The White House views the attacks on Holder as a “political agenda” and “would not hasten the departure of someone who’s competent and runs the department and is a friend because there’s a drumbeat,” said William Daley, a former White House chief of staff under Obama. “Whoever Barack Obama puts in there, these people will try to drumbeat him out of there, no matter what.”

But that does not mitigate the frustration of some presidential aides. “The White House is apoplectic about him, and has been for a long time,” said a Democratic former government official who declined to be identified talking about friends.

White House officials believe that Holder does not manage or foresee problems. “How hard would it be to anticipate that the AP would be unhappy?” the former official said. “And then they haven’t defended their position.”

The president is also said to appreciate Holder’s integrity and his positions during some of the big fights over what to do about terrorism and other volatile issues.

Moreover, advisers said, Obama after a full term in office is less likely to worry about political flare-ups that will eventually die down.

“It’s very easy sitting in that town to overestimate the longevity and impact of these issues,” David Axelrod, Obama’s political strategist, said from Chicago. “I don’t think Americans are sitting around their kitchen tables clamoring for Holder’s head because of the AP or Fox subpoenas. It’s not water-cooler discussion.”

But it is more fuel for Republican critics on Capitol Hill, who have had repeated clashes with Holder and the Justice Department he heads.

Under his leadership, the department scaled back a voter-intimidation lawsuit from the Bush era involving the New Black Panther Party.

He reopened criminal investigations into the CIA’s interrogations of terror suspects and tried to prosecute alleged Sept. 11 conspirators in civilian courts rather than military tribunals, which provoked accusations that he was soft on terrorism.

And he abandoned the legal defense of a law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage that social conservatives viewed as a bulwark against attacks on the traditional family.

The party-line furor peaked with hearings into Fast and Furious, a botched gun-trafficking investigation by federal agents based in Arizona.

When Holder, citing executive privilege, refused to provide department e-mails relating to the investigation, the House voted to hold him in contempt of Congress.

A report by the Justice Department’s independent inspector general exonerated Holder from accusations that he had sanctioned risky investigative tactics used in the case, but that did not satisfy Republican lawmakers who are still pressing a court to order for the e-mails to be turned over.

More so than in the past, Democrats have joined in the criticism. “I am very leery about any investigative tool that involves even the appearance of an investigation directed at journalists,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Yet Democrats remain reluctant about joining what they see as a partisan campaign against the attorney general.

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