A look back at Eric Holder's controversial tenure

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," September 27, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," American bombs begin falling in Syria as President Obama attempts to rally the world against ISIS. We'll look at the campaign and the coalition so far.

Plus, a look back at Eric Holder's polarizing tenure at the Department of Justice and the political legacy he leaves behind.

And it's being billed as the greatest challenge of our time. Is a global climate deal coming? And what would it do to American energy prices?


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's going to be no reasoning, no negotiation with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.


GIGOT: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

That was President Obama this week sounding a lot like his predecessor during an address to the United Nations General Assembly. The president's call for action against ISIS came as an American-led bombing campaign began in Syria striking dozens of Islamic State targets as well as the Khorasan branch of al Qaeda that officials say have been planning attacks on the United States.

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens; and editorial board member, Matt Kaminski.

So, Matt, what do you make of the military campaign so far?

MATT KAMINSKI, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: Well, it's very important that he's done this, first of all. It is --


GIGOT: You think it's a good thing to do?

KAMINSKI: Absolutely. He put it well in that speech. It's important he's managed to create a coalition of Arab states, much more symbolically important, so we're not alone doing this but other Arab countries are involved in the fight. The sort of problem that's raised here, what is the overall strategy for Obama and for the U.S.

GIGOT: That's what I want to talk about. Because the bombing campaign started I think more aggressively than some people thought it would, Bret.

BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: Yeah, but not as aggressively as it needed to be. But that's to say there was a -- I mean, there was a ramping up and clearly there were a number of strikes over the weekend against Syria. You have a major problem, and I don't think the Pentagon understands the value of the shock-and-awe campaign against a group being turbo charged within Syria and Iraq by the perception that it is advancing. You saw this week the Islamic State continuing to make major gains against the Iraqi army. So we are deluding ourselves if we think we now have begun to contain this problem. We haven't. They will continue to make gains. And they will make gains precisely in those places where it's most difficult for us to hit them, especially in major cities.

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: You know, I think you have to listen closely these days to President Obama when he speaks to get the sense of what he wants to do. As Matt said, there seems to be no strategic vision but he said we are on the march against a, quote, "network of death."

GIGOT: Well, he says his strategy, his goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. These bombing attacks degrade ISIS.


GIGOT: Why is that not consistent with his strategy?

HENNINGER: Well, for two reasons. In your introduction, you mentioned a word before last week was unfamiliar to everyone, Khorasan.

That was a group it turns out that was plotting to bomb subways in the West and in the United States, meaning New York and Washington. And last week, Algerian Islamic militants beheaded a French guide, who they grabbed up in the mountains there. So there's yet another group in the same game as ISIS, which means we're not just attacking one group in northern Iraq and Syria but a series, a network, as he put it.

GIGOT: I don't get you guys. What do you want him to do? What do you think would be a strategy that would succeed?

KAMINSKI: I think it's important -- Iran, for example, has a strategy in the region. It is to support and pump up the regime in Syria, push back the Saudis, encircle Saudis, and push this sort of Iranian Shia wave through the Middle East. That's a big strategy. President Obama, yes, he wants to degrade ISIS, but what do we want to see him do in Syria? Do we want to see Assad toppled? Will we do anything to topple Assad? What is a strategy for Iraq and how to put that country back together?


GIGOT: The thing with Iraq to work with the Kurds in the north and to work with the Iraqi army and build up a new national guard of Sunni warriors to be able to do more on ground as a companion to what we do in the air.

Now, I agree that ground forces, American ground forces, advisors, special forces, killers at night, the way McChrystal did in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be far better, but if President Obama is not going to do is that, isn't this the next best thing?

STEPHENS: No, because essentially, unless we're beating ISIS and beating them decisively, they are going to gaining ground. The basic problem here is that Obama seems intent on deploying the minimum amount of force necessary to at least begin to achieve the objective. That approach is a grave mistake. Actually, we saw it in Iraq in 2003. Remember some of the Democratic criticism coming from General Shinseki's about our initial approach into Iraq --


GIGOT: Inadequate force.

STEPHENS: Exactly. We needed massive force up front, not at the back end. So the problem here is he's sending a kind of uncertain signal. It's not clear how long this is going to last. We still have the question of congressional authorization, maybe two months down the road for the broader strategy of arming the Free Syrian Army. You need a president who makes it much more clear that he's intent to lead and deploy American forces in the numbers necessary.

GIGOT: Democracies, as we know, are not very good at supporting long wars. We loose patience. People begin to see political opportunity and opposition in the costs. Is the president taking a risk here when the advisers say this is going to be a long campaign that may extend beyond his presidency?

HENNINGER: There's real political risk inside the United States. I mean, there are Democrats, like Congressman Adam Schiff of California, a prominent member, a spokesman for the Democratic Party on foreign affairs, who is saying, we need a vote in December to authorize what's going on there. But the Democrats are talking about an authorization that lasts for one year. They don't want -- they want to put a deadline on it. There are Republicans who would sign on to something like that. This will take much longer than a year. He's on thin ice.

GIGOT: Matt, you met with some foreign officials this week. What do they think of the effort so far?

KAMINSKI: There's a lot of bad feeling from what happened last year on Syria when President Obama said he would bomb the Assad regime to enforce his red line. People like the French went out in support, a real political risk and then he changed his mind. There's not that much trust there that he's willing to do this right.

GIGOT: President has to show he's willing to stick with this.

When we come back, Attorney General Eric Holder resigns, capping a tumultuous six years as the Justice Department. A look back at his controversial tenure and a look ahead to who might replace him, next.



ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: In the months ahead, I will leave the Department of Justice but I will never, I will never leave the work. I will continue to serve and try to find ways to make our nation even more true to its founding ideals.


GIGOT: Eric Holder announcing Thursday that he will step down as attorney general of the United States after six years. He's one of just three cabinet members who have been with President Obama from the beginning, and has proven to be one of the most polarizing members of his administration.

Here with a look back at his tenure in the Justice Department is Wall Street Journal Potomac Watch columnist, Kim Strassel; and editorial board member, Dorothy Rabinowitz.

So, Dorothy, what do you make of the legacy or Eric Holder?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: "Inflammatory" is the key word, I think. I think he will go down as the most divisive attorney general --


GIGOT: How so?


GIGOT: That's a common view.


GIGOT: How so.

RABINOWITZ: He has done this. He has given immediately almost the moment he took office the impression that he was not the attorney general of all of the American people. He was the attorney general of some of the American people, people of color. He was there as the activist civil libertarian, which is not the role of the attorney general. He proceeded then over the years he's been there to do things to increase the suppression. He --

GIGOT: Give us a couple of examples.

RABINOWITZ: Yes. For example, he went marching into a judicial battle with the states that wished to curtail illegal immigration.

Arizona, for instance, said that the government had the right. It was not the state's right --


GIGOT: But won in court on that.

RABINOWITZ: This is the case. But he refused to prosecute. This may seem minor. If you've taken the position that the justice was so important, it stands out when you refuse to prosecutor or even look into the case of some Philadelphia black activists who literally bully, provably, people at the polls, white people, white elderly people. It was of no interest to him. The accretion of all of these things. But to me the most important and most insidious thing that Eric Holder did was to increase the levels of racial paranoia in this country to the degree that, even as late as this summer, he went before the Reverend Al's commission --

GIGOT: Al Sharpton.

RABINOWITZ: Yes, and he announced that no other president, no other attorney general had been so mistreated. He meant by congressional committee. What he meant was exactly the reflection of everything that Obama supporters have meant, which is to criticize the president is to be expressing white racism.

GIGOT: OK, that is -- precisely what you talked about is what the people on the left give him credit for.


GIGOT: Kim, what the liberals are criticizing Eric Holder for is not prosecuting a single big banker or financier for the 2008 financial crisis and they blame him for that and say that's the biggest failure. What do I make of that?


Because, look, this is a guy who, in addition to the things that Dorothy has been talking about, he also pretty much gave over the Justice Department to the left's feelings of populism and very aggressively prosecuted all of these cases against Wall Street banks, often without much evidence. This was clearly done out of a sense of need for retribution after the 2008 financial meltdown.

GIGOT: Yeah, but Kim, he didn't -- what they're saying is he didn't prosecute any individuals --

STRASSEL: Yeah, but --


GIGOT: -- It's true in the second term he went after the big banks and exacted huge settlement on what I would argue are dubious grounds but they are blaming him for not indicting any individuals and finding them as criminal. What do you --


GIGOT: Is that a failure or is that, in fact, a success because he couldn't find they broke any laws?

STRASSEL: Right, you can only stretch the law so far. As you said, the cases he brought were fairly dubious. My point about this being extraordinary is the fact that despite having oriented so much of the Justice Department towards this campaign, they are still not satisfied with the legacy of Eric Holder on that, which does say something about the impulses of a lot of the people who are supporters of Barack Obama.

GIGOT: I think the worst thing he did was that lawsuit against Louisiana vouchers in private school, where he said that they -- the lawsuits said they were violating desegregation statutes from 30 or 40 years ago because of the fact that black children, minority children could escape lousy schools and were going to better schools where they didn't like the new racial mix.


HENNINGER: Well, this was using a model called disparate impact, which is a statistical analysis of the racial composition of virtually anything. And the Holder Justice Department did take action against fire departments for their hiring practices, police departments such as the police department at Newark because there was a disparate impact on their arrest and stops on the street. They did a settlement with the Newark police. They have filed a suit against the Pennsylvania State Police on that basis. They have filed suits against cities and school systems. And this is pushing beyond what normal people think of civil rights, where you need an overt explicit act of discrimination. This is a statistical analysis.

So I think, overall, what Eric Holder has done is push these things to the point where he's increased the divisions inside the political system in Washington using the power of the justice system to get things he couldn't get in the legislature.

GIGOT: All right, I'm afraid that has to be the last answer.

When we come back, President Obama calls climate change the defining challenge of the century as world leaders work towards a deal to cut carbon emissions. What it could mean for American energy prices, next.



OBAMA: Of all of the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week -- terrorism, instability, inequality, disease -- there's one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.


GIGOT: President Obama giving climate change top billing in a list of challenges facing the world this century. His speech this week at the U.N.'s climate summit comes five years after the Copenhagen Conference failed to secure a binding global treaty on carbon emissions. But world leaders are gearing up to try again with negotiators set to meet in Paris next year to iron out a new deal.

Wall Street Journal editorial board member, Joe Rago, joins us with more.

So, Joe, I wish the president had put the slow economic growth at the top of that list and alleviating poverty.


But, no, put that aside.

Ban Ki-moon thought -- the U.N. secretary-general -- said great success this week at the U.N. on climate. Was it?

JOE RAGO, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: I don't think so. He had to say that. The most telling thing was that this is designed to build momentum going into Paris next year. But you didn't see the Chinese president show up or the India prime minister show up, Vladimir Putin of Russia --


GIGOT: Big, big fossil fuel producer.

RAGO: Right. Those are the number one and number three and number four emitters. Those are the guys you need to get to have any appreciable effect on climate change going forward. And really, the rich Western nations are -- their carbon emissions are going down. They only count for a little bit more than 40 percent of the world emissions. So it's really the responsibility is being transferred to the developing world.

GIGOT: Kim, what odds do you give for a deal next year?

STRASSEL: Well, I think what's important is not what the president said but what he didn't say. Note the fact that he did not promise to make and to vote his entire last two years of office into somehow getting the U.S. Congress to agree to a Cap and Trade reduction program --

GIGOT: Right.

STRASSEL: -- the kind that you would need to have one of these treaties work. Congress would have to sign off on something like that.

The last time Democrats did that, one of the results -- or tried to do that, they lost the 2010 election, lost the House. So the president has largely given up on that on a political thing. Even the things he promised this week that the United States was going to do, oh, we're going to look at more technology to help poor countries and we will evaluate climate when we give aid to countries are nowhere near those kind of binding commitments that people are talking about that you need to make a pact like this work.

GIGOT: It seems the problem here, in some respects, that the climate change advocates have is democracy. They can't persuade publics to give up

-- to pay the price that you would have to pay on higher energy prices to be able to impose their agenda. Australia repealed its carbon tax. As Kim pointed out, the United States Senate, led by Democrats, hasn't been able to impose essentially a higher price on carbon.

HENNINGER: What we heard from the president is what you call political messianism. And political messianism tends to have the problem of not being able to get most people to go along with it.

There is one country that has, Paul, and that is Germany. They have made nuclear power and carbon illegal. They have promoted wind and --


GIGOT: They still use carbon.

HENNINGER: They still -- well, yes, that's the point. They still use carbon.

GIGOT: -- that they're investing a trillion dollars in wind and solar and renewables and it's raising prices so much on energy in Germany that they are falling back --


HENNINGER: And now the utilities are buying and using more cheap coal, creating more. They have spent an extra $129 billion on consumers in Germany since 2006. Big companies like BASF Chemical are beginning to move their operations to other countries. So the economics, which is where the rubber hits the road with climate change, is not working in the favor of what the president is proposing.

GIGOT: But -- a big march. You and I were in on Sunday unfortunately for our sins --

RAGO: Four hours.


GIGOT: And we saw the march go right down Sixth Avenue, 300,000 people it was said. What is that? What is the goal of that? Is that political, put pressure on the politicians?

RAGO: I think it's to create a public spectacle and sort of the appearance of momentum. But I don't think the American public is going to be persuaded by a parade, however large. I think they've looked at the evidence, considered it, and concluded that the costs don't justify the potential benefits going forward.

GIGOT: Do you think climate change should be at the top of the list of global problems?

RAGO: I think it's something we should keep our eye on, look at it going forward, but it's a richer society of the future is the one that's going to be able to deal with any of these speculative problems if they do develop. And we should be focused on increasing economic growth now so we're better placed to deal with whatever nature throws our way.

GIGOT: We can afford the mediating policies or dikes or whatever we would need, if it really becomes a grave problem.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits & Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits & Misses" of the week.

Kim, let's start with you.

STRASSEL: A miss to Mary Burke, who is the Democrat challenging Scott Walker to be the new governor of Wisconsin. Mrs. Burke is running on new leadership, yet it came out this week that she had plagiarized much of her jobs plan, stealing it word for word from platforms of previous Democrats who had run across the country. Making matters worse, when this came out, she then blamed it on and fired a campaign consultant, making it clear she hadn't been charged of crafting her own jobs agenda. If this is Mrs.

Burke's idea of a fresh start for Wisconsin, the state might be better off keeping what it's got.

GIGOT: All right.


RAGO: Paul, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continued her media road show this week and gave frankly a weird and political interview to Elle magazine, for some reason. The justice, who is 81, says she won't retire under President Obama because Senate Republicans are crazy and will never confirm someone who is as great and as liberal as she is. This is a hit to Justice Ginsburg. Please stay on the court for three more years and wait until after the election and roll the dice.

GIGOT: Liberals want her to step down. And she's fighting back.


HENNINGER: Paul, this is not a hit. This is the hit. Derek Jeter's game-winning hit in his final game at Yankees stadium. I was there Thursday night with 43,000 other people. You know, it was really a storybook ending to an exemplary career in which he has been both good guy on the field and a great guy off the field. And In some ways, I think Derek Jeter is bringing back the all-American hero. It sounds corny, but that's the point.

GIGOT: All right, Dan, thank you.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.

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