WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder won't be prosecuted for being in contempt of Congress because he is insulated by President Barack Obama's use of executive privilege, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday.

House Republicans voted Thursday to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress -- a historical first -- for failing to provide certain documents they sought relating to the Justice Department's botched Fast and Furious operation. The vote came after months of threats by Republicans warning they would make the dramatic move if Holder didn't give them the documents they wanted, without condition, a process that Democrats and the administration have dismissed as a political stunt. In the end, President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege and directed Holder not to release certain documents for legal reasons. The contempt vote happened anyway.

But for all the GOP fireworks, Carney said that Holder won't be prosecuted for the criminal charge.

"It is an established principle, dating back to the administration of President Ronald Reagan, that the Justice Department does not pursue prosecution in a contempt case when the President has asserted executive privilege," Carney told reporters in a gaggle aboard Air Force One.

"The assertion of executive privilege makes the contempt matter moot, if you will. I mean, I’m not a lawyer, so I'm probably not using quite the precise language. But it is my understanding, and I would refer you to the Justice Department, that dating back to the administration of President Reagan that prosecutions will not take place under this, in this circumstance."

A Justice Department spokeswoman echoed Carney's comments and pointed to a letter that was delivered Thursday to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) outlining the same argument.

"Across administrations of both political parties, the longstanding position of the Justice Department has been and remains that we will not prosecute an Executive Branch official under the contempt of Congress statute for withholding subpoenaed documents pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege," reads the letter, signed by Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Regardless of the Reagan-era tradition, it was already highly unlikely that Holder would have faced prosecution. The criminal charge refers the dispute to a District of Columbia U.S. attorney, who was appointed by Obama and serves under Holder, meaning he's not likely to seek action.

The House passed a separate, civil contempt charge that authorizes the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to sue the Justice Department to try to force Holder to turn over more documents. But that effort could get tied up in court for years.

Carney again called the contempt vote "pure politics" and noted that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who led the 18-month investigation, said he had no evidence that Holder or the White House knew about the activities of Fast and Furious. Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who was "not a political friend" of President Bill Clinton, refused to hold Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt when some in his party wanted him to, Carney said.

Issa and House Republican leaders have "made a strategic choice to try to somehow make a political play here that I don't really think will be effective," Carney said. "Perhaps short of inspiring some small segment of the American electorate out there, I think it will turn off most Americans who just are sick of the political gamesmanship in Washington."

This article has been updated with a comment from a Justice Department spokeswoman.

Loading Slideshow...
  • From left, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Md., Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep, Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, and many House Democrats walk out of the Capitol during the vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, Thursday, June 28, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, and the committee's ranking Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., go to the House Rules Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, to argue procedures as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on whether Attorney General Eric Holder is in contempt of Congress because he has refused to give the Oversight Committee all the documents it wants related to Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed gun-smuggling probe involving Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., left, stretches out her hand to get the attention of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as the panel considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, sits between them. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) (C) talks with raking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (L) during a mark up hearing on Capitol Hill June 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Issa and the committee Republicans called the hearing to vote on holding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents the GOP says are key to their investigation into the failed Fast and Furious operation. Before the start of the hearing, the White House asserted the documents are protected by executive privilidge. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., center, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, confers with an aide as the panel considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, second from left, speaks with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who authored an amendment in support of Holder. In a showdown with President Barack Obama's administration, House Republicans had pressed for more Justice Department documents on the flawed gun-smuggling probe known as Operation Fast and Furious that resulted in hundreds of guns illicitly purchased in Arizona gun shops winding up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, center, debates Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., right, considers whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, speaks at left. In a showdown with President Barack Obama's administration, House Republicans are pressing for more Justice Department documents on the flawed gun-smuggling probe known as Operation Fast and Furious that resulted in hundreds of guns illicitly purchased in Arizona gun shops winding up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: House Oversight and Government Reform raking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (R) hears from U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) during a mark up hearing with June 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and the committee Republicans called the hearing to vote on holding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents the GOP says are key to their investigation into the failed Fast and Furious operation. Before the start of the hearing, the White House asserted the documents are protected by executive privilidge. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Attorney General Eric holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Rep. Issa met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., speaks to reporters following his meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Issa met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Attorney General Eric Holder walks through Statuary Hall to speak to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • FILE -In this Dec. 8, 2011 file photo, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, shakes hands with Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington. Holder is proposing to meet with Issa by Monday to settle a dispute over Justice Department documents the congressman is demanding on a flawed gun-smuggling probe. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Also on HuffPost: