Retired federal judge Michael Mukasey was sworn in Friday as the nation's 81st attorney general, filling a vacancy left when Alberto Gonzales resigned amid questions about his credibility.
Mukasey was sworn in at a private Justice Department ceremony about 16 hours after he narrowly won Senate confirmation. The oath was administered by Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus, who oversees the department's management and budget operations.
In a largely party-line vote, a bitterly divided Senate voted 53-40 to confirm Michael Mukasey as attorney general, a nomination that was supposed to be easy, but became mired in a controversy over the legal definition of torture.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) complained before Thursday night's vote that the controversy over Mukasey's comments on the controlled-drowning technique known as waterboarding had unnecessarily complicated the nomination process.
"It shouldn't have taken nearly this long to process the Mukasey nomination," McConnell said. "I'm glad that tonight, almost two months after he was nominated, the waiting will finally end."
Mukasey lost support among Democrats for refusing to say that waterboarding is torture. But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) backed him, saying he was the best nominee Democrats would get.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, though, opposed Mukasey.
"If he cannot stand up to the president on such a question of profound importance and simplicity with a clear legal answer, how can we be sure that he would be more than just another mouthpiece for an administration that treasures secrecy and loyalty above all," Reid said.
Could Not Define Waterboarding as Torture
Waterboarding is banned by domestic law and international treaties. But U.S. law applies to Pentagon personnel and not the CIA. The administration won't say whether it has allowed the agency's employees to use it against terrorism detainees.
Mukasey, 66, has called waterboarding "personally repugnant," and in a letter to senators said he did not know enough about how it has been used to define it as torture. He also said he thought it would be irresponsible to discuss it, because doing so could make interrogators and other government officials vulnerable to lawsuits.
Not one Republican opposed Mukasey's nomination.
Following the vote, President Bush praised Mukasey, saying he would "lead the Justice Department as it works to protect the American people whether from drug traffickers and other criminals on our streets or from terrorists who seek to attack our homeland."
"Now that Judge Mukasey has been confirmed, I look forward to working with the Senate to fill the other senior leadership positions at the Justice Department so that America has the strongest, most capable national security team during this time of war," the president added.
At least 15 senior Justice Department officials have resigned since Schumer began his investigation of the firings of federal prosecutors at the start of 2007. The departures include Mukasey's predecessor Alberto Gonzales, his second- and third-in-command and five assistant attorneys general.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press