Eric Holder Could Be Obama's Top Justice Pick

Correction Nov. 19, 2008

In this interview, we said, "[Holder is] a supporter of the death penalty." In fact, in his confirmation hearing for the position of deputy attorney general, Holder said, "I am not a proponent of the death penalty, have stated that publicly on many occasions, but would not hesitate to enforce any law that this Congress has passed that has a death penalty provision."

President-elect Barack Obama's top choice for U.S. attorney general seems to be Eric Holder. Holder was the No. 2 official in the Justice Department under President Clinton. The Obama team says no final decision has been made.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

So far President-elect Obama has reached this decision. He's selected Eric Holder as his first choice for the job of attorney general. If confirmed by the Senate, Holder will be the first African-American to serve as the nation's number one law enforcement officer. NPR mews Analyst Juan Williams confirmed the selection yesterday, and he joined us this morning to talk about the selection. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, Eric Holder has been on many people's shortlist for this job. What are his main qualifications?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's 25 years as a prosecutor and a local judge in the District of Columbia. And for the last few years, Renee, he's been a top corporate lawyer here in Washington in a major firm, Covington and Burling, representing clients from Merck Pharmaceuticals to the NFL to Chiquita Bananas. He's 57. And as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., he won the conviction of former Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, ending that congressman's career as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and sent him to jail. That was a major corruption case.

And he was later the deputy attorney general under Janet Reno and then subsequently acting attorney general for the first few weeks of the Bush administration. And while he was the deputy attorney general, he made a name for himself by taking a lead on President Clinton's effort to put a hundred thousand more policemen on the street. He's a supporter of the death penalty. He also acted as President-elect Obama's surrogate to police chiefs during the campaign, promising more federal grants to police around the nation. And he also vetted the vice presidential pick, which of course became Joe Biden.

MONTAGNE: OK, so that's the experience he would bring to the office. Eric Holder spoke with NPR last month, and he had this to say about the next administration's Justice Department.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney, Covington and Burling): When you look at the other issues that I think the next president is going to have to deal with, chief among them is going to be trying to revitalize and remake a Justice Department that has been really sullied in the last four or eight years or so by people who tried to politicize it.

MONTAGNE: And what has President-elect Obama indicated he wants done, and presumably by Eric Holder, to reverse that?

WILLIAMS: Well, what he wants him to do is pay a great deal of attention to integrity and trust, especially trying to build or rebuild morale among attorneys in the Justice Department so that you have a strong sense that the department is beyond politics. Under Bush administration Attorney Generals Gonzales and then Ashcroft, there was the sense that politics became paramount in driving the agenda of the Justice Department. And so there's a tremendous sense of concern about whether or not there is public integrity there. And that would be the lead item, lead priority.

MONTAGNE: But Juan, one thing that's known about Eric Holder was that he had an involvement in a controversial pardon that President Clinton made as he left office. Will that be a problem for him? And is there anything else waiting to emerge?

WILLIAMS: Well, Arlen Specter, who's the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said yesterday that the pardon of Marc Rich, who was a financier who left the U.S. to avoid possible jail time, will be center-stage - and here I'm quoting, Renee - in possible confirmation hearings. And - but most Republicans yesterday had no strong reaction, positive or negative, to Holder. And Democrats for the most part gave their ascent. So while Holder's biggest problems go back to those final days of the Clinton administration, it's not clear that it's going to be a major impediment to his confirmation.

MONTAGNE: And Juan, just briefly, because we have just a few seconds here, you confirmed Eric Holder's selection yesterday for NPR. And as I understand it, it took some doing. Does this speak to the Obama team's larger media and information strategy in the White House?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's a tight group Renee, and they're in a bunker in Chicago. And so right now their main concern is to avoid anything that could be a problem in the first few months of the Obama administration. They don't want anything to mar his launch, if you will.

MONTAGNE: So playing it close to the chest.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

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Sources: Holder Tapped For Attorney General

President-elect Barack Obama has decided to nominate Eric Holder as attorney general, according to a source close to the Obama-Biden transition team.

On Tuesday, the source said that Obama recently offered Holder the position, and that he had accepted. No one on the transition team has publicly confirmed the pick, and Holder would still need to undergo a formal "vetting" review by the Obama transition team to finalize the selection.

Holder, 57, was deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration and more recently, he has been a prominent attorney at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington and Burling. If confirmed, Holder would be the country's first African-American attorney general.

Holder has been a close friend and prominent adviser to Obama throughout the campaign, helping him to lead the search for a vice presidential candidate.

With more than 55 Democrats in the Senate, Holder's confirmation seems likely, though there may be some concern about the role he played in the 2001 pardon of fugitive Marc Rich by Clinton at the end of his presidency.

Holder helped vet the pardon and said he was "neutral, leaning towards favorable." He later publicly apologized and said had he given the issue more attention, he would have cautioned against a pardon.

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