The president may be protecting himself. Executive privilege is a presidential power limited to his own communications. The Department of Justice delivered a letter to the House regarding Fast and Furious in February 2011. That letter was full of inaccuracies and was retracted in full after nine months. What did the president know about the creation of that letter, which is the prime subject of the subpoena that has led to the contempt of Congress action and assertion of executive privilege? When did he know it? Why was the letter so full of falsehoods? Why did the author of that letter retire just a week prior to the contempt vote?
The president may be seeking to expand executive privilege itself. United States vs Nixon recognized but also limited the scope of executive privilege for presidents, down to the president’s personal communications and communications of a national security nature. Neither applied to Fast and Furious, but the assertion of executive privilege implies that either one or both does apply. President Obama came into office promising unprecedented transparency, but asserting executive privilege breaks that promise. Breaking a public promise must be worth today’s actions to the president. He may want to expand executive privilege to use the power more extensively if he wins a second term.
Whatever the president’s intentions, he has now made Fast and Furious a mainstream story. He and his allies will use it to play up the partisan divide and fire up his base, but that may become more difficult as the voting public learns more about a scandal that most are hearing about for the first time. Unlike most political scandals, Fast and Furious involves the blood of two US agents, Brian Terry and Jaime Zapata, and hundreds of innocent Mexican citizens. That blood now leaves a public trail straight to the president himself.