Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation leaves President Barack Obama trying to replace one of his most trusted confidants in a critical job at a time when his dealings with Congress are bound to become more difficult.
The nations’ first black attorney general absorbed political heat for Obama on divisive issues, whether it was justifying drone strikes on U.S. citizens, challenging voter identification laws or defending same-sex marriage.
Taking those stands, combined with a contentious relationship between the White House and congressional Republicans, made him a prime target for administration critics; He was the first cabinet secretary ever to be held in contempt of Congress.
Standing next to Holder in the White House state dining room yesterday to announce the attorney general’s planned departure, Obama called it a “bittersweet” moment.
“He believes, as I do, that justice is not just an abstract theory,” Obama said. “It’s a living and breathing principle.”
Holder, who has served for six presidents from both parties, said his decision was not an easy one and that he is leaving with “mixed emotions.” He will stay on until a yet-to-be-named successor is confirmed by the Senate.
“This is a place that I love, and I think we have accomplished a great deal,” he said in a brief conversation before riding in his motorcade to the White House for the announcement. “There is a part of me that is always going to be here at the Justice Department. But it’s time for me to move on.”
Holder, 63, is one of three remaining members of Obama’s original cabinet and is the fourth-longest serving attorney general in U.S. history.
He has been discussing plans to leave the job for more than a year, as he tried to complete his agenda on federal sentencing rules and civil rights protections. In an interview with Bloomberg News in March, shortly after suffering what he called a “spooky” health scare that got him rushed to the hospital, Holder signaled that he could see the end of his public career on the horizon:
“It will happen to all of you at some point, you zoom past your 30th, 40th, 50th birthday. When you get to 60, there is a certain sense of mortality you have to come to grips with, when you realize you have more yesterdays than tomorrows.”
He can expect to find a far more lucrative career in private practice -- he made $2.1 million as a partner for the firm Covington & Burling in 2008, the year before he took the attorney general’s post, according to financial disclosure forms. He is paid about $200,000 as the government’s top prosecutor.
Holder has told aides he would like to continue as an advocate for issues close to his heart -- reducing racial strife and improving relations between police and the communities they serve.
In a speech this morning to a Congressional Black Caucus event in Washington, Holder said there is still work to be done before he leaves office.
“My colleagues and I are acting aggressively to ensure that every American can exercise his or her right to participate in the democratic process, unencumbered by unnecessary restrictions that discourage, discriminate, or disenfranchise,” he told the audience.
Possible successors who have been talked about by lawmakers as well as current and former administration officials include Solicitor General Donald Verrilli; Deputy Attorney General James Cole; Kathryn Ruemmler, the former White House counsel; Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Lisa Monaco, a former assistant attorney general who currently is Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
Other potential candidates include California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a longtime Obama ally, and at least three Democratic U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota as well as former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller.
Three other potential candidates who are frequently mentioned have suggested they won’t seek the job.
Deval Patrick, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, said at an event today in Massachusetts that being the top federal prosecutor is “an enormously important job, but it’s not one for me right now,” according to his press office.
Jim Margolin, a spokesman for Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, declined to comment on Bharara’s plans for the future or whether he is interested in Holder’s job. In the past, Bharara’s response to questions about higher office consistently has been, “I love my job.”
FBI Director James Comey, a former deputy attorney general, told reporters today that he didn’t want the post.
Holder’s timing of his resignation likely puts Senate confirmation proceedings for Obama’s nominee after the November congressional elections and before the next Congress is seated.
That means Democrats still would hold their majority in the chamber when the nomination comes up for a vote, though Republicans would still be able to put hurdles in front of Obama’s choice.
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the chamber, opposed Holder’s confirmation in 2009 and said he remains confident that was right decision. The attorney general, he said, “placed ideological commitments over a commitment to the rule or law.”
“So I will be scrutinizing the president’s replacement nominee to ensure the Justice Department finally returns to prioritizing law enforcement over partisan concerns,” McConnell said in a statement.
A Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of the administration’s deliberations said Obama hasn’t decided on a nominee. The president probably would seek to pick a woman or minority, and probably not pick a senator, even though a lawmaker is often easier to get confirmed, said the aide, who asked for anonymity because the discussions weren’t public.
Holder’s promise to stay in the job until his successor is in place may speed the confirmation process, if only because Republicans say they are eager to see him go.
If the process extends beyond the end of the year, Obama may fin it tougher to getting his nominee confirmed. Democrats are defending 27 Senate seats in November and seven of those are in states that Obama lost in the presidential election. Republicans, who already have a majority in the House, need a net gain of six seats to gain control of the Senate.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest refused to put a timetable on when Obama would decide on a nominee. He said he was confident that Obama’s pick would get bipartisan support.
“We would anticipate a pretty seamless transition here,” he told reporters traveling back to Washington with Obama from New York yesterday. Selecting a replacement is a “high priority” for the president.
Holder has helped shape Obama’s strategies in national security matters. He argued that waterboarding was torture and justified drone strikes on U.S. citizens. He unsuccessfully sought to try high-profile terrorism suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in civilian courts. And he took political fire for pursuing investigations of government employees who leaked information to reporters.
While aggressively pushing those policies, Holder positioned himself as the administration’s chief protector of racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians from discrimination, while fixing what he considers related flaws in the justice system that he said unfairly targeted such groups.
He instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level drug offenders in a way that triggered what he considers “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences.
Holder most recently took the lead role in the administration’s reaction to the racial strife that erupted after the shooting in August of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. He has said he is particularly proud of having reinvigorated the department’s Civil Rights Division, an accomplishment also touted by Obama at yesterday’s White House ceremony.
Myrlie Evers, widow of civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers, said Holder never shied away from the tough issues.
“There has been no greater ally in the fight for justice, civil rights, equal rights and voting rights than Attorney General Holder,” she said in a statement today. “The attorney general was always there ready to correct injustices and offer common sense reforms to better our nation.”
Obama has tapped Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to help ease the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. After the November elections, Obama has said he will decide on their recommendations on how to ease deportations of undocumented immigrants and provide some of them with legal status.
The Republican-led House cited Holder for contempt of Congress in 2012 in a dispute about turning over documents related to a botched attempt to track gun-smuggling called Fast and Furious. Republicans faulted Holder’s oversight of the operation and his responses to lawmakers’ queries about it.
Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who led a committee investigation of the gun operation, called Holder “the most divisive U.S. attorney general in modern history.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, had a similar reaction yesterday.
“I hope that the next attorney general will take seriously his role as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, working with Congress to ensure that the laws of our land are followed instead of being a roadblock on the path to justice,” Goodlatte said in a statement.
Holder’s aides and friends said his constant battle with Republicans wore him down, and he didn’t leave the post earlier because he’d be seen as bowing to political pressure.
Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general and a friend of Holder’s, said Holder decided this was a good time to step aside because he had accomplished many of his goals in matters he cared about -- ranging from civil rights to changing the government’s sentencing practices.
“Eric is delighted and excited and amazed about what he has been able to do with various divisions in the Justice Department,” he said.