This post was last updated at 4:44 p.m. ET.
Eric Holder Jr., the nation’s first black U.S. attorney general, will resign his post after a tumultuous tenure marked by civil rights advances, national security threats, reforms to the criminal justice system and 5 1/2 years of fights with Republicans in Congress.
President Obama said on Thursday that Holder, 63, intends to leave the Justice Department as soon as his successor is confirmed, a process that could run through 2014 and even into next year. A former U.S. government official says Holder has been increasingly “adamant” about his desire to leave soon. Holder and President Obama discussed his departure several times and finalized things in a long meeting over Labor Day weekend at the White House.
Holder already is one of the longest-serving members of the Obama Cabinet and currently ranks as the fourth-longest tenured AG in history. Hundreds of employees waited in lines, stacked three rows deep, in early February 2009 to witness his return to the Justice Department, where he previously worked as a young corruption prosecutor and as deputy attorney general — the second in command — during the Clinton administration.
But some of that early glow faded in part due to the politicized nature of the job and in part because of Holder’s own rhetoric, such as a 2009 Black History Month speech where he said the country was “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussions about racial tension.
Five years later, violence erupted between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after a white policeman killed an unarmed black 18-year-old. And this time, the White House dispatched Holder to speak his piece, in effect jump-starting that conversation and helping to settle nerves in the frayed community.
Another huge controversy — over his decision to try the Sept. 11 plotters in a New York courthouse in the shadow of the twin towers of the World Trade Center — prompted venomous reaction from lawmakers, New York City officials and some victims’ families.
Under pressure that threatened his job and his legacy, the attorney general reversed his decision and instead sent the cases to military court — where they continue to languish even as Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and other terrorism defendants are serving life sentences in maximum-security prisons on American soil.
Holder most wants to be remembered for his record on civil rights: refusing to defend a law that defined marriage as between one man and one woman; suing North Carolina and Texas over voting restrictions that disproportionately affect minorities and the elderly; launching 20 investigations of abuses by local police departments; and using his bully pulpit to lobby Congress to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Many of those sentences disproportionately hurt minority communities.
And then there’s his relationship with Congress. From the day Holder’s nomination was announced, Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled that he would be a political lightning rod.
The attorney general’s portfolio, which spans sensitive law enforcement cases and hot-button social issues including marijuana and gay marriage, didn’t help. But even longtime aides say Holder didn’t do enough to help himself by shrugging off preparations and moot sessions before congressional appearances and speaking off the cuff — and obliquely.
Things hit a crisis point when the GOP-led House voted him in contempt for refusing to hand over documents about a gun trafficking scandal known as Fast and Furious. That represented the first time an attorney general had ever been rebuked that way, but still Holder held on to his job.
In the end, the decision to leave was Holder’s alone — two sources told NPR that the White House would have been happy to have him stay a full eight years and to avoid what could be a contentious nomination fight for his successor.
The attorney general told DOJ staff the news this morning and called civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Ethel Kennedy, the widow of former AG Robert F. Kennedy.
The sources say a leading candidate for the job is Solicitor General Don Verrilli, the administration’s top representative to the Supreme Court and a lawyer whose judgment and discretion are prized in both DOJ and the White House.
Friends and former colleagues say Holder has made no decisions about his next professional perch, but they say it would be no surprise if he returned to the law firm Covington & Burling, where he spent years representing corporate clients.
The friends say Holder is also considering donating his papers to a university in Washington, D.C., or his native New York, where he could establish a civil rights center to work more on law enforcement interactions with communities of color and host public forums on those issues.
Even though the attorney general has his eyes on the door, the two sources say several more policy and enforcement initiatives are underway and could be announced soon.
For instance, Holder sent a memo to U.S. attorneys Wednesday urging them not to use sentencing enhancements known as “851″ tools to gain leverage in plea negotiations with defendants — in essence, threatening defendants into avoiding trial with huge amounts of prison time. The practice has been criticized by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn and other jurists.
Holder is also expected to notify federal prosecutors in coming days that the Justice Department will no longer require defendants who plead guilty to waive their rights to appeal based on ineffective lawyering. Many U.S. attorneys now forgo that practice, but not all.
Long-awaited racial profiling guidelines for federal agents will be released soon, too. Those guidelines will make clear that sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion are not legitimate bases for law enforcement suspicion, but controversial mapping of certain communities — including Muslim Americans — would still be allowed for national security investigations, one of the sources said.
Update at 4:44 p.m. ET. An Emotional Goodbye:
In an emotional ceremony at the White House on Thursday, President Obama said that saying goodbye to Holder was “bittersweet.”
He described the attorney general as having a “deep, abiding commitment to equal justice under the law,” and to taking steps that further guarantee everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In his own speech, Holder fought back tears. He said beyond having a strong working relationship with Obama, “I am proud to call you a friend.”
Holder said Obama’s administration has “done much to make real the promise of our democracy.”
Stepping down now, he said, means the end of his public service. But it doesn’t mean he’ll stop working.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Attorney General Eric Holder is about to announce his resignation. NPR has learned he’s leaving the job after more than five years as the nation’s first African-American attorney general. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is breaking this story. She’s on the line with us live. Hi Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why is Holder leaving now?
JOHNSON: He’s been wanting to leave, Steve, for a long time. If he stays through December, he’ll be the third longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history. And of course, Steve, he’s already one of President Obama’s longest-serving cabinet members. The thinking in his shop was that if he stayed much longer, he’d be locked in to stay through the remainder of President Obama’s second term. So up until 2016.
INSKEEP: Locked in – why? – Because Republicans might win the Senate? The Senate has to confirm the successor and anything could happen with a different Senate after this election?
JOHNSON: Absolutely right. And in fact, Holder is going to say that he – I’m told by two sources familiar with his decision – that he’s intending to stay until his successor is confirmed. He thinks that will happen by the end of this year or early next year. But of course, you can never predict what kind of confirmation fights you’re going to enter into in the U.S. Senate these days.
INSKEEP: Hasn’t Attorney General Holder been a real lightning rod for Republican’s throughout his tenure?
JOHNSON: He has. In fact, Steve, he was the first attorney general to be rebuked by the House of Representatives, which earlier in the last few years had held him in contempt for refusing to turn over documents regarding that long running gun trafficking scandal known as fast and furious. But from the moment President Obama announced he was going to nominate Eric Holder to be his Attorney General, Republican – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – signaled that he would be the target of GOP attacks. And he has been Steve. In part because the Attorney General Justice Department mandate is so politicized and so hot-button in the terms of issues like gay marriage and marijuana laws, that you almost can’t avoid being a lightning rod lately.
INSKEEP: And we’ll just remind people – we’re talking with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. She is breaking the news this morning that Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce his resignation today – if I’m not mistaken Carrie – is that right?
JOHNSON: The announcements going to come formally later today. Holder has already called some civil rights icon – including Representative John Lewis, a Democrat of Georgia – and also Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy – the formal attorney general. Holder’s going to be bringing in the heads of the FBI, DEA and other agencies that report to him later this morning.
INSKEEP: Let me just ask – we mentioned that he was a lightning rod because also stayed a very long time in this Cabinet post. More than quite a few Cabinet secretaries have. How close a confidant has Eric Holder been to this president?
JOHNSON: Eric Holder, in some ways Steve, has said thing’s President Obama could not or felt he should not – for instance, earlier this year he went to Ferguson Missouri – Eric Holder did – at the request of the White House – where he tried to help soothe racial tensions between police and the African-American community there, of course Steve, after the white police officer killed an unarmed 18-year-old – Michael Brown, who was African-American. And Eric Holder from his earliest days as attorney general had been talking about wanting to have a conversation about race – a national conversation. He’s now – after five and a half years in the job – been at the heart of that conversation on the president’s behalf.
INSKEEP: And very briefly Carrie Johnson – you mentioned that Eric Holder is likely to stay in the job until his successor is confirmed. Any idea who that successor might be or at least to the president might nominate?
JOHNSON: I’ve been canvassing law enforcement officials and former government officials for weeks now, Steve. Two sources tell me the leading candidate is Donald Verrilli, who’s currently the U.S. solicitor general, the administration’s top representative to the Supreme Court. Verilli has distinguished himself as somebody the president and Eric Holder both respect.
INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks very much, as always.
JOHNSON: You’re welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR’s Carrie Johnson breaking the news this morning that Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce his resignation later today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.