President Obama heaped praise on Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday as he announced the resignation of America’s top law enforcement official, one of his longest serving cabinet members, and a personal friend.
“We could not be more grateful for everything you’ve done for our country,” Obama said at a White House event with Holder at his side, who choked back tears during his own remarks.
Obama praised Holder’s work on everything from gay rights to criminal justice reform, framing Holder’s work as the relentless pursuit of justice and fairness.
“I chose him to serve as attorney general because he believes, as I do, that justice is not just an abstract theory. It’s a living and breathing principle. It’s about how our laws interact with our daily lives. It’s about whether we can make an honest living and whether we can provide for our families, whether we feel safe in our own communities and welcomed in our own country. Whether the words that the Founders set on paper 238 years ago apply to every single one of us – and not just some. That’s why I made him America’s lawyer, the people’s lawyer,” Obama said.
Holder, who is the first African-American to hold the position of U.S. attorney general, plans to stay in his post until his successor is confirmed by the Senate. Obama did not name a nominee Thursday evening to replace Holder, though there already appears to be a short list of potential candidates.
Holder has led the Justice Department since the start of the Obama administration in 2009. He prioritized civil rights, an issue important to him throughout his long career in government. All told, Holder served at the Justice Department under six presidents of both parties.
“Eric’s proudest achievement, though, might be reinvigorating and restoring the core mission to what he calls the conscience of the building, and that’s the Civil Rights Division,” Obama said, noting that Holder’s father was denied service at a lunch counter because of the color of skin, despite serving his country in World War II.
For his Part, Holder said he has “loved the department of justice” since he was a child, when he watched former Attorney General Robert Kennedy use its power to enforce civil rights law. “I will never – I will never – leave the work,” he said, even though he said he was leaving public office for good.
During his tenure, Holder was always a target of Republicans. He was the first attorney general in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress. Perhaps not surprisingly, while Democrats praised Holder on his retirements, GOP responses ranked from luke warm to hostile.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already called for delaying the confirmation process until the new year, after new senators will be seated. “Rather than rush a nominee through the Senate in a lame duck session, I hope the president will now take his time,” the senator, who could become chairman of the committee in January, said in a statement.
Early on, Holder sought to have Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and other architects of the Sept. 11 terror attacks tried through the civilian justice system, including bringing them to New York for the trial. The administration ultimately backed down amid opposition from Republicans and many family members of the victims.
And last year, the House voted to hold Holder in contempt when he refused to turn over documents relating to an investigation into DoJ program to counter gun trafficking, known as Fast and Furious. Democrats denounced the probe as a witch-hunt.
He often sparred with outgoing House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, calling the GOP congressman’s conduct “unacceptable” and “shameful” at a May hearing.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Republicans were quick lambast Holder upon news of his retirement. “Eric Holder is the most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history,” Issa said in a statement that reflected the tone of many GOP responses. “Time and again, Eric Holder administered justice as the political activist he describes himself as instead of an unbiased law enforcement official.”
But Democrats and civil rights leaders were laudatory, congratulating Holder on his work reviving the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and other work advancing causes he had championed his entire career.
“There has been no greater ally in the fight for justice, civil rights, equal rights, and voting rights than Attorney General Holder,” said Myrlie Evers, the wife of the late civil rights icon Medgar Evers and the chairman of their eponymous institute.
Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and who will be responsible for ushering a successor through confirmation, praised Holder as an “an extraordinary leader of the Department of Justice.”
Last month, Holder made a high-profile trip to Ferguson, Missouri to help calm tensions after the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, and to assure residents that the federal government will aggressively investigate the killing.
And he has aggressively used the Voting Rights Act to protect access to the ballot for racial minorities, bringing lawsuits against voting restrictions in Texas and North Carolina, and supporting cases in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Holder has disappointed some progressives for his reluctance to file criminal charges against individual banking executives who helped cause the 2008 financial crisis.
Holder had served as deputy attorney general—the No. 2 post in the department—during the Clinton administration.
According to a book published in 2012, Holder considered resigning less than two years into his term under strain from both Republicans and White House political aides, but he was convinced otherwise by Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of Holder’s.
Holder told The New Yorker magazine for a story published in February that he planned to step down this year. But the process of confirming his successor could last into next year.
Among those believed to be a short list of possible successors include Solicitor General Donald Verrilli; U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara; Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; and California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Others, msnbc’s Ari Melber reported Thursday, include former Associate Attorney General Tony West; Deputy Attorney General James Cole; Jenny Durkan, the US Attorney for the Western District of Washington; former US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald; and former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer.
Patrick, who previously worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, appears to have ruled himself out, telling reporters in Massachusetts Thursday, “That’s an enormously important job but it’s not one for me right now.”
Harris is up for re-election this year and is a rising star in the Democratic Party. An African-American progressive who won an unlikely election for her state’s top law enforcement job, she is a likely future contender for governor or senator. But she may have to compete with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, another up-and-coming Democrat, for either position, perhaps making her open to a Washington job.
But at 49, and with no major experience in Washington, she seemed like a less likely choice. And Thursday afternoon, she too seemed to rule herself out. “I am honored to even be mentioned, but intend to continue my work for the people of California as Attorney General,” she said in a statement.
Bharara has made a name for himself as an ambitious federal prosecutor in arguably the most important U.S. attorney’s office in the country. Recently, he’s gone after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for potential interference in a anti-corruption probe the governor created.
Verrilli is likely the frontrunner. He was confirmed by the Senate 72–16 in 2011, but has served with the Obama administration in other jobs. He was a Deputy Counsel to the President and then later Associate Deputy United States Attorney General in the Department of Justice.
As solicitor general, his primary job is to defend the administration before the Supreme Court. He gave what many considered a weak performance while defending the Affordable Care Act, but the decision ultimately went in his favor.