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Holder Cites Race in Explaining Scrutiny of Justice Department Actions

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Dec. 8, 2011: Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Judiciary Committee.AP

Eric Holder is once again under fire from Republicans -- this time for pulling the race card to dismiss critics of his tenure as attorney general. 

The attorney general cited race in explaining why a "more extreme segment" of his critics were going after him. "This is a way to get at the president because of the way I can be identified with him, both due to the nature of our relationship and, you know, the fact that we're both African-American," Holder said in an interview with The New York Times.

Holder has faced more congressional scrutiny than any member of President Obama's Cabinet. Calls for his resignation on Capitol Hill have mounted as the investigation into the ATF's Fast and Furious gunrunning probe intensifies. The Republican presidential candidates are as united in calling for Holder's resignation as they are in calling for the repeal of the federal health care overhaul.

Holder's Republican detractors have been aggravated by the Justice Department's lawsuits against states pursuing crackdowns on illegal immigrants, its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court and several other initiatives. 

And Republicans rejected the notion that race had anything to do with it. 

J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, told Fox News that the criticism of Holder appears to be based on the Justice Department's actions.

"I think it's fair criticism. When you look at Fast and Furious ... when you look at guns ending up in the hands of drug lords and criminals south of the border, I think that's fair criticism," he said. 

Watts, who is black, cautioned against jumping to cite race as a motivation for criticism, something he said both parties are guilty of doing. 

"I think it cheapens and it weakens the legitimate claims of racism," he said. "I think racism is obviously alive and well, but I think it cheapens it when we so quickly and in such cavalier ways, we often jump to that. Now I'm not saying that the attorney general's being cavalier. ... He probably honestly feels like that." 

But a Justice Department official called the criticism of Holder's comment a "distortion," noting that he was talking about how he's identified with the president. In his New York Times interview, Holder did not ascribe race as a factor for all his critics, just the "extreme" ones. He accused his critics more generally of playing "Washington gotcha" games and "construing things to make it seem not quite what it was." 

"As he said in that article, in testimony and elsewhere, he believes some of the more extreme criticism is the typical Washington 'gotcha' games -- which is unfortunate," the official said. "A reading of that article and that comment makes clear that he was referring to how he is identified with the president and sometimes viewed as a stand-in for him as he is a member of his cabinet and they have a lot in common. The position of attorney general has historically been a target for partisan attacks and given the critical work that he has been doing and the Department has been doing for the last three years, it's no surprise that some are engaging in such tactics."

Dan Gerstein, a public relations consultant, said Holder's remarks were probably a reflection of his own "frustration." 

But Gerstein questioned why the attorney general would mention race when he could just as easily dismiss the criticism of his tenure as a product of partisanship. 

"Crying foul on race is something ... you have to be really, really, really careful with when you're in a position of power," Gerstein said. "To President Obama's credit, he doesn't do that. ... (Holder) should take a cue from his boss." 

Gerstein said Holder runs the risk of marginalizing himself with such a remark. 

Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., said it looks like Holder is playing the "last card in the deck." 

West told The Daily Caller that Holder's "incompetence" is behind the criticism. "It has nothing to do with your race -- it has everything to do with competence, with your character and with your ability to lead the Department of Justice," West said. 

Holder is not the only black Cabinet-level official in the Obama administration. He's just the one who attracts the most partisan scrutiny. 

Holder, in testimony earlier this month, decried the gun-walking tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious -- which was tied to the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry one year ago, as well as the deaths of Mexicans south of the border. Holder has claimed he did not learn about the operation until earlier this year. 

He said at the hearing on Capitol Hill this month that "nobody" in his department has lied, he and urged lawmakers not to let the issue become a "political sideshow." 

Despite Holder's appeals, the controversy is not going away. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, this week urged Holder to testify before his panel next month.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus meanwhile have been divided over the Fast and Furious scandal. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is Issa's Democratic counterpart on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a CBS "Face the Nation" interview in October that while he doesn't believe Holder knew about the operation early on, he supports the investigation. 

Cummings said he thinks Issa has turned the probe into a "witch hunt" -- however, he said he wants a "responsible and balanced investigation" and vowed to "pursue the facts wherever they may lead." 

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., though, told The Daily Caller earlier this month that the Fast and Furious fallout is a "manufactured controversy."