Former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder visits Sacramento to meet with his clients: California's legislators

With California’s relationship to President Trump growing increasingly strained, Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday met in person with the high-profile attorney tasked with shaping their strategy for upcoming clashes: former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder.

The visit marks the first time the Washington, D.C-based Holder has come to the state capital since he and his firm, Covington & Burling, were hired last month as independent counsel for the Legislature in anticipation of legal and policy battles with the new administration.

Holder, along with five lawyers from his firm, met separately with the Senate and Assembly Democratic caucuses. That afternoon, there was a confab in the governor’s office with legislative leaders and, via telephone, state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.

“We’re here to talk about what are we going to do collectively, the Assembly and the Senate, to do everything within our power, within our own legal means to protect our policies, to protect the values of the people of California,” Senate leader Kevin de León said. “I think it's pretty simple and straightforward.”

Holder, who led the Department of Justice for six years under President Obama, kept his public remarks general in a brief appearance before reporters outside Gov. Jerry Brown’s office.

“I'm here just to assist these gentlemen and the people who they serve with in trying to protect the interests of the people of California,” Holder said as he stood alongside De León (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount).

When asked how he would provide such assistance, he simply answered, “Well.”

The visit comes as Trump has increasingly ratcheted up his rhetoric against California, asserting an unfounded theory of mass voter fraud in the state and threatening to strip the state of federal dollars for its friendly posture toward immigrants in the country illegally.

“If we have to, we’ll defund," Trump said in an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Sunday. "We give tremendous amounts of money to California. California in many ways is out of control, as you know.”

Although Holder’s hiring came before Trump’s inauguration, Rendon said Trump’s hostile tone and string of controversial executive actions has since reinforced the need for California lawmakers to hire outside counsel.

“I think it's a better idea now than ever before, he said. "There's probably a wider scope of things that he could help us with. I also think a lot of the questions that we perhaps thought were going to be down the road will be in the very immediate future." 

Democratic lawmakers were circumspect in describing Holder’s remarks — delivered in the morning to state senators on a full-day policy retreat, and at lunch for the Assembly caucus at a downtown Sacramento hotel — for fear of violating attorney-client privilege.

“We talked about California’s positioning, what options we have in front of us and how we can lead the nation in terms of a resistance and what we can do to fight back,” Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) said.

Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) described the mood of the gathering as “wary of what Trump's up to.”

Legislative Republicans grumbled at not having their own opportunity to meet with Holder. Assembly GOP Leader Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley), who previously denounced the hiring as a “political stunt,” was rebuffed in a request for his caucus to pose questions to Holder, although his staff did decline an offer to meet with other visiting attorneys.

The contract with Covington, which went into effect last week, caps the cost at $25,000 per month for three months. The bill will be split between the Senate and Assembly’s operating budgets, and the agreement is limited to a maximum of 40 attorney hours per month. Holder has no immediate plans to return to Sacramento, legislative sources said.

Hiring outside legal help is not unprecedented for the Legislature, but it is uncommon, particularly given the breadth of issues Covington is contracted to consult on, including healthcare, environmental policy and immigration. 

The latter has emerged as the top priority for lawmakers and their attorneys in the early weeks of Trump’s presidency. Most of Covington’s initial work has been focused on building a strategy around so-called sanctuary cities — which limit the use of local law enforcement resources in assisting federal immigration authorities — after the president signed an executive order that threatened to withhold funds from jurisdictions that act to protect those in the country illegally.

In Sacramento, lawmakers responded by fast-tracking legislation that would ramp up immigrant protections, including a bill by De León that would prohibit state or local police from engaging in immigration enforcement, effectively making California a sanctuary state. The bill was introduced less than a month after Trump’s victory and before Holder’s firm was hired, but Covington attorneys have recently consulted on the measure as it speeds through the Legislature.

Other California officials have taken different approaches in the wake of Trump’s order. The city of San Francisco promptly sued Trump’s administration, asserting that the order violates states’ rights provisions in the U.S. Constitution. Santa Clara County also filed a lawsuit.

Becerra, California’s top lawyer, also left the door open for legal action.

“We will fight anyone who wants to take away dollars that we have earned and are qualified for simply because we are unwilling to violate the Constitution under these defective executive orders,” Becerra said this week.

The focus now turns to harmonizing the various reactions to the sanctuary city order. To do that, De León has been reaching out to city and county leaders, along with Brown and Becerra, to create a unified statewide response to Trump’s action.

Becerra, who was in Bakersfield on Tuesday to meet with his Central Valley staff, farmers and farm workers, participated by telephone in Holder’s meeting with the governor and legislative leaders.

Participants in that afternoon meeting discussed the swirl of legal activity around another controversial executive order by Trump that restricted travel from residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries. The travel ban was stayed under a court order, and judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday afternoon on whether to extend that stay.

Conversation also touched on the need to ensure that all parties — the governor, attorney general and legislative leaders — are on the same page as California’s policy battle with Trump progresses.

“The theme was coordination,” Rendon said.

Staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Follow @melmason on Twitter for the latest on California politics.

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