Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation Thursday, signaling an end to his six turbulent years in office and setting the stage for a potentially bruising confirmation battle in the Senate over his eventual replacement.
“We could not be more grateful for everything that you’ve done, not just for me and the administration but for our country,” President Barack Obama said at the White House, with Holder at his side.
Obama cited Holder’s record on corruption, terrorism and revising unfair sentencing guidelines. He suggested Holder’s biggest accomplishment may have been “reinvigorating and restoring” what Holder has called the Justice Department’s “conscience,” the Civil Rights Division.
Holder called the job the “greatest honor of my professional life” and thanked Obama for sticking with him – despite repeated Republican calls for him to step down.
“In good times and in bad, in things personal and in things professional, you have been there for me,” Holder said.
Holder has served as one of the biggest lightning rods in the administration for conservatives, and his departure sparked a quick round of speculation about potential successors, including Preet Bharara, the high-profile U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney in Washington state.
Holder faced criticism for failing to aggressively prosecute Wall Street, but Bharara has led the charge in recent years against Swiss banks that were helping American citizens skirt U.S. tax laws, prosecuting Swiss bankers and forcing the banks to turn over lists of account holders.
Verrilli, who is the administration’s leading advocate before the United States Supreme Court, has been panned for weak oratory skills. But he delivered one of the administration’s biggest wins, defending Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court.
Harris, a politically ambitious 49-year-old, has periodically seen her name floated for an Obama administration appointment. The Human Rights Campaign is championing Durkan, the first openly gay U.S. attorney to be appointed by a president and confirmed by the Senate.
Two potential contenders took themselves out of the running. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters at a campaign event that Holder’s job was “not one for me right now.” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in a statement that he had “no interest in other positions.”
Holder agreed to remain in his post until a successor is confirmed, a process that could prove exceedingly divisive, particularly if Democrats lose control of the Senate in the November elections.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for Obama to “take his time” and not name a successor during the post-election session – when Democrats would still control the Senate.
“Rather than rush a nominee through the Senate in a lame-duck session, I hope the president will now take his time to nominate a qualified individual who can start fresh relationships with Congress,” Grassley said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who didn’t support Holder’s nomination in 2009, promised scrutiny, saying he’d look for a nominee “to ensure the Justice Department finally returns to prioritizing law enforcement over partisan concerns.”
Holder defied persistent calls for his resignation from conservative critics, but he talked to Obama about leaving “on multiple occasions in recent months,” said a senior Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy. Holder finalized his plans in an hour-long conversation with Obama at the White House residence over the Labor Day weekend.
Now 63, Holder would be the third-longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history if he remains in office into December. A White House statement noted he’s currently the fourth-longest person to hold the position.
He is one of only three Cabinet members from Obama’s original team – the others are Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Education Secretary Arne Duncan – still serving in the post to which he was first named.
He made a mark on civil rights issues, recently helping to ease tensions in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager. Holder opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting and announced a federal initiative to study racial bias and to build trust between law enforcement agencies and communities.
Holder was a “persistent and consistent leader in the struggle for civil and human rights,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and his leadership “will be hard to replace.”
But much of Holder’s tenure was marked by repeat clashes with House of Representatives Republicans, who accused the longtime Justice Department employee of putting politics above enforcing the law.
In June 2012, by a largely party-line vote, the Republican-controlled House voted to hold Holder in contempt over his refusal to turn over documents related to the notorious Fast and Furious gun-dealing operation.
Republicans applauded his departure, with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., saying he hoped Holder’s replacement “will take seriously his role as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, working with Congress to ensure that the laws of our land are followed instead of being a roadblock on the path to justice.”
Holder provided no detailed plans for when he leaves, but he said he would not leave the causes he’s been involved with.
“I will never leave the work,” he said. “I will continue to serve and try to find ways to make our nation even more true to its founding ideals.”
Holder privately informed his staff and top officials at the Justice Department about his departure plans Thursday, and he placed calls to congressional officials and friends.
On Friday, he will travel to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Scranton, Pa. The trip will complete his goal of visiting all 93 federal prosecutors’ offices during his time in office.
William Douglas, Kevin G. Hall and Marisa Taylor of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.