Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney general and David Axelrod, his top political adviser had to be separated after squaring up during a furious row over attempts to impose White House operatives in the justice department.
By Jon Swaine, Washington
6:22PM BST 03 Jun 2012
Eric Holder, who heads Mr Obama’s justice department, is said to have become “incensed” after being accused by David Axelrod of complaining publicly about political interference in his office.
“That’s bull****,” Mr Holder said in a confrontation after a cabinet meeting, according to author Daniel Klaidman. He writes: “The two men stood chest to chest. It was like a school yard fight”.
The relatively mild-mannered Mr Axelrod is said to have told the attorney general: “Don’t ever, ever accuse me of trying to interfere with the operations of the Justice Department”, a taboo in US politics.
In ‘Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency’, Klaidman discloses the struggles within Mr Obama’s White House at it mounted its controversial campaign against al-Qaeda.
He writes that Mr Holder and Mr Axelrod were separated by Valerie Jarrett, a White House adviser and confidante to Mr Obama. Ms Jarrett “pushed her way between the two men, her sense of decorum disturbed, ordering them to ‘take it out of the hallway’,” says Klaidman.
The argument is said to have erupted over attempts to add a political official to the staff of Mr Holder, who has presided over a handful of political and public relations blunders since taking office in 2009.
Denying impropriety, Mr Axelrod, a hangdog 57-year-old veteran of Chicago politics, is said to have told Mr Holder: “I’m not Karl Rove”.
Mr Rove, a top aide to President George W. Bush, was accused of pressuring the justice department to fire seven politically unhelpful federal prosecutors in 2006.
The book, which is released on Tuesday, examines the CIA-led drone war on al-Qaeda operatives who have made it on to a so-called “Kill List” that is said to be overseen by Mr Obama himself.
It comes soon after a series of well-informed newspaper articles and other books covering similar ground and portraying the President as a ruthless slayer of terrorist suspects five months before he faces re-election.
Klaidman also discloses that the work of Christopher Hitchens, the late British author, influenced the decision by Mr Obama’s administration to overhaul its rules on interrogating terror suspects.
Hitchens was waterboarded for an article and video titled “Believe me, it’s torture” and published by Vanity Fair in 2008. He could bear only ten seconds before asking that it be stopped.
“Watching the video,” Klaidman writes, “Holder was both mesmerised and repulsed.” The attorney general became “increasingly convinced that he would need to launch an investigation”.
Mr Obama banned waterboarding – in which detainees are made to feel they are drowning – and other techniques after coming to office in 2009, while Mr Holder launched an inquiry into past practices.
Mr Obama today attempts to recover from his worst week of the presidential campaign so far, having been battered by dismal unemployment figures as his campaign repeatedly botched their message.
He remains 2.3 per cent ahead of Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, according to a RealClearPolitics aggregate of national polls. However Mr Romney’s campaign is growing in strength.
Klaidman writes in his book that shortly after taking office in 2009, Mr Obama was already keenly aware of the possibility that he might be ousted by the former Massachusetts governor after one term.
“You never know who is going to be president four years from now,” Mr Obama is said to have told aides during a discussion about whether he should be able to detain terror suspects indefinitely. “I have to think about how Mitt Romney would use that power.”