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28 Sep

It’s oddly fitting that Attorney General Eric Holder – a stubbornly independent career prosecutor ridiculed by Barack Obama’s advisers for having lousy political instincts— would nail his dismount.


But Holder, who began his stormy five-plus-year tenure at the Justice Department with his controversial “Nation of Cowards” speech, has chosen what seems to be the ideal (and maybe the only) moment to call it quits after more than 18 months of musing privately about leaving with the president and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, a trio bound by friendship, progressive ideology and shared African-American ancestry.

It was now or never, several current and former administration officials say, and Holder – under pressure to retire from a physician wife worried about a recent health scare, checked the “now” box. “It was a quit-now or never-quit moment,” one former administration official said. “You didn’t want confirmation hearings in 2015 if the Republicans control the Senate. So if he didn’t do it now, there was no way he could ever do it.”

Holder—described by associates as President Obama’s “heat shield” on race and civil rights—sprung it on the president over the Labor Day holidays. Obama didn’t bother to push back as he has in the past, even though staffers say he winces at the prospect of a long confirmation battle, whomever he chooses for the nation’s top law enforcement job.

Holder’s announcement gives Obama several weeks to pick and vet a successor who would face confirmation hearings in the lame-duck session after the midterms. Holder has “agreed to remain in his post until the confirmation of his successor,” a top Justice Department aide said, as an insurance policy against GOP foot-dragging.

His timing also has a personal dimension. The keenly legacy-conscious Holder has never been in better standing, leaving on arguably the highest personal note of his tenure, after a year of progress on his plan to reform sentencing laws and just after his well-received, calming-the-waters trip to Ferguson, Missouri, during the riots in August. In a background email to reporters, a senior Justice Department official struck a victory-lap tone, writing, “The Attorney General’s tenure has been marked by historic gains in the areas of criminal justice reform and civil rights enforcement. The last week alone has seen several announcements related to these signature issues.”

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That’s a striking contrast to the defensive posture of the last few years, when Holder became the first sitting Cabinet official to be found in contempt of Congress. Hill Republicans, who have warred with Holder for years, greeted his departure with don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out glee. “I welcome the news that Eric Holder will step down as Attorney General,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, in an email. “From Operation Fast and Furious to his misleading testimony before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Department’s dealings with members of the media and his refusal to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, Mr. Holder has consistently played partisan politics with many of the important issues facing the Justice Department.”


At the moment, there’s no obvious replacement, several officials close to the situation told me. W. Neil Eggleston, the new White House counsel, will lead the search with an assist from Jarrett, Holder’s longtime ally and defender. Obama and his team would probably prefer a known and trusted quantity—like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a potential future Democratic presidential candidate who served as the head of the department’s civil rights division under Bill Clinton. But Patrick, who is friends with Obama insiders like David Axelrod, who still advises his old boss informally, has repeatedly told them he’s not interested, and – for now—he seems to mean it. When asked by reporters today, Patrick snapped, “I am going to finish my term and then head into the private sector.”

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr. is a favorite of Obama’s, and a person valued as a team player inside the West Wing—not as widely known but someone who might have an inside track, thanks to Obama’s penchant for picking trusted insiders over high-profile outsiders. But liberal critics have faulted Verilli for his halting performance defending the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court, as well as his mixed scorecard overall.

In recent days the president’s team has also taken a close look at California Attorney General Kamala Harris, an African-American woman who would likely pursue the same civil rights agenda championed by Holder—but may opt to stay in her state to pursue gubernatorial ambitions.

Other names under consideration, but considered less likely, according to check-ins with half a dozen current and former West Wingers: Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney in Manhattan known for his aggressive Wall Street prosecutions; Ron Machen, the young U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C.—a job once held by Holder; Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a former state attorney general; former Joe Biden aide Neil MacBride, an ex-federal prosecutor in Virginia who is now a partner at the law firm Davis Polk; ex-White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, another Obama favorite; and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, another former head of the civil rights division—and currently the only Latino candidate mentioned by insiders.

There’s also at least one high-profile long-shot on the informal list being circulated inside Obama’s camp: former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who left Washington in 2013 to take over the massive University of California system, according to one Democrat with close ties to the White House. Napolitano was the original choice for the job at the start of Obama’s first term – a favorite of then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Holder, who had considered himself the sole front-runner for the job, was startled during the 2008-09 transition period when he was handed a Department of Justice binder that included headshots of himself and Napolitano as potential AGs.

Glenn Thrush is senior staff writer at Politico Magazine

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