Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the indictment of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for the first time Thursday and vigorously defended the pursuit of political corruption cases more broadly. In an exclusive interview with msnbc, Holder also said the Justice Department would be open to plea negotiations with Edward Snowden.
McDonnell and his wife Maureen were charged in federal court Tuesday for allegedly taking tens of thousands of dollars-worth of gifts from a supporter who sought help from the state government. McDonnell has said he is being wrongly accused and his legal team argued that he engaged in “routine politics.”
"The notion that public officials trade their office for their own personal gain," said Holder, "is something that’s inconsistent with good government." Stressing that he was speaking about corruption in general, Holder added: "People who are in these positions have the public trust, they have great benefits that go with them in these positions, and they should be held, I think, to the highest standard."
Some of the gifts the McDonnell’s accepted included a $6,500 Rolex watch, $10,000 worth of Oscar de la Renta clothing and $15,000 for his daughter’s wedding expenses.
"I think the indictment lays out in pretty specific detail our theory of the case -- ultimately a jury will decide," Holder said.
Holder is a close friend of President Obama and has served as attorney general since 2009. He has devoted a significant part of his career to the Justice Department, where he spent years prosecuting political corruption cases for the public integrity section. "We brought cases all the time where public officials received money, got gifts in exchange for official action – that is classic corruption," he said. "Those are the kinds of cases that we traditionally bring."
Holder spoke in Roanoke, Virginia, where he was visiting a federal veterans' court, part of the Justice Department's focus on prioritizing rehabilitation over prison for certain drug defendants.
On the fate of Snowden, the former CIA officer and NSA contractor who leaked tens of thousands of classified documents, Holder said the prospect of amnesty "goes too far."
"He broke the law, he caused harm to our national security -- I think he has to be held accountable for his actions," Holder said. If Snowden's lawyers sought a deal with some accountability, Holder said he would "engage in conversations" as in any plea negotiation.
"Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself," Snowden said in an online chat Thursday. "The hundred-year old law under which I’ve been charged, which was never intended to be used against people working in the public interest, and forbids a public interest defense. This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury."
Snowden was granted temporary amnesty by Russia last summer. Snowden has been charged with theft and two serious charges under the espionage act: “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.”
Last month, a federal court in Washington ruled against an N.S.A. program based partly on Snowden's revelations, but Holder said such rulings do not change Snowden's status. "People have really gotten hung up on the idea of whether he's a whistleblower or something else," Holder said. "From my perspective, he's a defendant. He's a person that we lodged criminal charges against. I think that’s the most apt title."
Holder added that the debate Snowden helped spark may be good for the country, despite his actions.
"I think the dialogue that we are engaged is in fact something that is ultimately going to be productive – it's healthy," Holder said, "but that doesn’t necessarily excuse that which what he did."
Holder declined to address claims by Congressional leaders that Snowden may have worked with a foreign government, citing the ongoing investigation against the former contractor.
The Attorney-General also addressed Obama's recent comments on marijuana.
"I think the positions that we're taking -- in terms of setting up those eight priorities that would warrant federal intervention -- are consistent with what the President said," Holder stated, referencing 2012 guidelines that leaned away from prosecuting private use.
"Small time-small amount marijuana cases are not the kinds of things that deserve to be in the federal system," Holder said. "When violence is part of the dissemination of marijuana," he added, "those are the kinds of cases that should be in federal system, and those are the changes we've made."