Attorney General Eric Holder will announce on Thursday he plans to resign his position, a Justice Department official tells NBC News. The announcement, expected at a formal White House event, will bring to a close Holder's historic and often turbulent six-year tenure as the nation's chief lawyer and the first African-American to hold the job.
Holder, 63, has agreed to remain in his post until the confirmation of his successor, which is sure to be a difficult process. President Obama was not expected to announce a nominee to replace Holder on Thursday, and officials say he has not yet decided on one, 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. During that time, he has prioritized civil and voting rights and criminal justice reform, earning effusive praise from civil rights activists. But he has also frequently clashed with Republican lawmakers.
Holder was the first attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress, and the deeply bifurcated view of his performance in the job was established early on. In a 2009 speech for Black History Month, he called the U.S. “a nation of cowards” for what he saw as its failure to talk honestly about race. The line drew a furious reaction from conservatives.
Given Holder’s low standing among Republicans, the confirmation of a successor in the Senate is likely to prove difficult, especially if it has to wait until after the midterm elections, in which Republicans are expected to pick up more seats.
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.