President-elect Obama has decided to tap Eric Holder as his attorney general, putting the veteran Washington lawyer in place to become the first African-American to head the Justice Department, according to two legal sources close to the presidential transition.
Holder, who served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, still has to undergo a formal “vetting” review by the Obama transition team before the selection is final and is publicly announced, said one of the sources, who asked not to be identified talking about the transition process. But in the discussions over the past few days, Obama offered Holder the job and he accepted, the source said. The announcement is not likely until after Obama announces his choices to lead the Treasury and State departments.
Holder, 57, has been on Obama’s “short list” for attorney general from the outset. A partner at the D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling, Holder served as co-chief (along with Caroline Kennedy) of Obama’s vice-presidential selection process. He also actively campaigned for Obama throughout the year and grew personally close to the president-elect. Holder has not returned a call seeking comment; a spokeswoman for the Obama transition team told Newsweek in an e-mail early Tuesday afternoon that no decision has been made.
The sources said the Obama transition team is still debating over who should serve under Holder in the key post of deputy attorney general. One top candidate, favored by Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and other former Clinton White House officials, is Elena Kagan, dean of the Harvard Law School and a former lawyer in the White House counsel’s office under Clinton. Another top candidate, favored by other Obama advisors, is David Ogden, a former chief of staff to Attorney General Janet Reno, who is currently heading Obama’s Justice Department transition team. Kagan brings legal policy credentials; Ogden has more experience in the Justice Department trenches.
The only hesitancy about Holder’s selection was that he himself had reservations about going through a confirmation process that was likely to revive questions about his role in signing off on the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Although there is no evidence that Holder actively pushed the pardon, he was criticized for not raising with the White House the strong objections that some Justice Department lawyers and federal prosecutors in New York had to pardoning somebody who had fled the country. But after reviewing the evidence in the case, and checking with staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Obama aides and Holder both decided the issue was highly unlikely to prove an obstacle to his confirmation, one of the sources said--especially given the Democrats’ more sizable post-election majority in the Senate.
A New York City native who graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Law School, Holder spent years as a federal prosecutor—a job in which he earned a reputation as tough and aggressive foe of public corruption. After serving in the pubic integrity section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and later a District of Columbia Superior Court judge, Holder was named by President Clinton as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. He became deputy attorney general in 1997 under Janet Reno and was viewed as a centrist on most law enforcement issues, though he has sharply criticized the secrecy and the expansive views of executive power advanced by the Bush Justice Department.
This story was updated Tuesday afternoon.