Obama treads carefully with AG pick

Obama treads carefully with AG pick
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President Obama is proceeding with caution in his search for the next attorney general, as he juggles competing priorities and varying political risks.

Current and former administration officials familiar with the selection process say the president has narrowed the field of candidates to replace outgoing Attorney Gen. Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEx-AG Holder urges GOP to speak against Trump efforts to 'subvert' election results Tyson Foods suspends Iowa plant officials amid coronavirus scandal Money can't buy the Senate MORE to three: Labor Secretary Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.


The president’s decision is fraught with a difficult political calculus. Factoring into the equation is the likelihood of a contentious confirmation process and a fast-closing window for quick Senate approval.

Obama must also consider the message his nominee would send about the direction of the Justice Department, and which candidate can stand up best to the intensified scrutiny the Justice Department would face if Republicans capture the Senate.

Chief among Obama’s needs is finding an attorney general that would work in lockstep with the White House, according to one former administration official with knowledge of the process.

Some at the White House “feel burned” by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ tell-all book about his tenure in Obama’s Cabinet and sometimes find Secretary of State John Kerry “difficult to control,” he said.

“This White House has prized being able to control everything that’s happening in the administration with a certain amount of precision,” said the former official, who asked not to be identified.

Obama has said he will wait until after Tuesday’s midterms to tap a successor to Holder, who announced in September that he would step down when a successor is in place.

Three current and former officials with knowledge of the selection and vetting process confirmed that Perez, Verrilli and Lynch appear to be the finalists.

The additional impending departure of the Justice Department’s second-ranking official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, gives the president two slots to fill. Neither Verrilli nor Perez is likely to leave a high-profile post for the number two slot at Justice, observers say.

That complicates the already tough choice between Verrilli, a trusted Obama loyalist who once said he’d take a job “sweeping floors” if it meant working at the president’s Justice Department, and Perez, who is a more recognizable figure and might send a more powerful signal about the administration’s commitment to equality and civil rights issues.

The White House is bracing for a potentially bruising Senate confirmation process that the administration may need to move quickly if Republicans wrest control of the upper chamber away from Democrats in Tuesday’s midterms.

That scenario would give the Obama administration until the end of the post-election lame-duck session to confirm a nominee via a party line vote. After that, the GOP would have power to block presidential nominations, something that would undoubtedly be on the table for the attorney general position, regardless of who Obama taps.

“Elements in Congress will find a reason to go hard against any of these candidates,” according to another former administration official with knowledge of the process.

The potential for a damaging confirmation fight is one reason why some insiders believe former White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler — previously thought to be a frontrunner for the job, given her close relationship with the president — withdrew herself from consideration.

As a lead lawyer for the White House, Ruemmler was likely involved with any number of controversial decisions on issues ranging from the IRS targeting scandal and problems at the U.S. Secret Service to the administration’s legal positions on controversial elements of the Affordable Care Act.

All of those issues and others would be open game for GOP lawmakers looking to go on the attack.

In effect, Obama will be picking a confirmation battle with whomever he selects.

Republicans, for instance, are likely to seize on Verrilli’s defense of ObamaCare before the Supreme Court in 2012.

They could also take aim at a host of other legal cases involving the solicitor general, including the Obama administration’s decision last year not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act’s prohibition on federal benefits for gay couples.

Working in his favor, Verrilli is seen as well liked by the West Wing and would have logged more face time with the president than the other candidates.  His background is in private practice, where he represented corporate clients in First Amendment cases before he joined the administration.

“I essentially took the view that, once the president was elected in November 2008, I would be happy to do anything at the Department of Justice, including sweeping floors,” Verrilli told The Washington Post in 2012.

Loretta Lynch, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, is also under consideration. According to a report from Reuters, Holder encouraged the White House to consider her as his successor.

Lynch would be the first African-American woman to head the DOJ. She lacks the ties with the president that Perez and Verilli have, but that distance could help her during a confirmation fight. Sources with knowledge of the process say she is actively being vetted, but it is unclear whether she is under consideration for both DOJ openings.

Perez, meanwhile, has been a leading voice for the president’s pay equality initiative, presiding over the Labor Department as it turns out regulations meant to promote higher wages and prevent discrimination against workers.

The aggressive push, in lieu of congressional action, has roiled some GOP lawmakers, who accuse the administration of executive overreach. And while Perez’s aggressive push for a national minimum wage and other populist economic policies may draw fire from GOP lawmakers during confirmation hearings, it has also raised his stock at the White House.

“There’s no doubt that Secretary Perez has distinguished himself as a particularly effective member of the president’s Cabinet,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters this week.

Perez, who formerly ran the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, also picked up an endorsement for the attorney general spot from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

For Obama, selecting Perez would create another dilemma: finding a new Labor Secretary. But the White House may also see value — both in terms of policy and messaging — in installing him atop the Justice Department at a time when the agency is grappling with racial disparities in the criminal justice system, same-sex marriage and voting rights.

Despite his previous tenure at Justice, Perez was not initially considered a lead contender for the attorney general position when Holder revealed his intention to step down. That has changed.

“I don’t think Tom Perez was at the top of the list,” the first former administration official said. “I think he well may be now.”