Attorney general the job no one wants?

Attorney general the job no one wants?
© Getty Images

The White House faces a bruising battle on Capitol Hill to confirm a successor to Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Joe Biden's continued 'Russian misinformation' defense of Hunter is conspiracy-level laughable Tyson fires 7 after probe into managers coronavirus betting MORE.

But first, it may face an even higher hurdle: finding someone who wants the job.


Several potential candidates have already made it clear that they do not want to be considered for the high profile but politically treacherous Cabinet slot.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickBiden faces pressure to take action on racial justice issues Biden selects Susan Rice to lead Domestic Policy Council, McDonough for Veterans Affairs Harrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment MORE (D), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and California Attorney General Kamala Harris each bowed out of the running within hours of Holder’s announced resignation Thursday — all saying they were committed to their current jobs.

Several other names are swirling around Washington’s rumor mill, but experts say any would-be successor — especially those with higher political aspirations — may have serious reservations about taking the Justice Department’s helm at the tail end of Obama’s presidency.

“The attorney general tends to get, by virtue of the office, caught up in very controversial decisions, actions and activities,” said Brookings Institution fellow John Hudak. “Somebody who has real ambitions down the road would like to avoid having to make decisions that are unpopular with a part of the population down the road, or carrying water for the president for a choice that isn't to their advantage.”

Obama will want to act fast, particularly if Republicans win a Senate majority in November. That scenario would give the GOP power to block presidential nominations in January.

Asked Friday if the administration was concerned it might struggle to recruit a top-tier replacement, press secretary Josh Earnest said he had “no concerns about that whatsoever.”

Holder’s longevity in the position is in itself a testament to the difficulty in replacing him.

House Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Friday that Holder would have stepped down at the end of Obama’s first term if he could have.

“Everyone knows that he wanted to leave at that time, and was prevailed upon to stay,” Clyburn said.

There are many reasons why someone with dreams of a higher political office would want to avoid the Department of Justice position.

For one, attorneys general are forced to tackle hot button issues ranging from terrorism strategy to civil rights to voting laws to gun control. As the federal government's top attorney, Holder's replacement will intersect with every hot button law enforcement issue on the horizon.

Among the looming challenges: whether to take action against the Ferguson, Mo., police department; how to implement the Justice Department’s efforts to offer mass clemency to nonviolent drug offenders; the president's executive orders on immigration reform; and cases against banks accused of currency manipulation.

The position could also require a nominee to bring cases against important donors or fixtures within the Democratic Party, warned Boston University political scientist Tom Whalen.

“It's fraught with political difficulty,” Whalen said. “If you're going to be prosecuting people in your own party, you're going to make a lot of enemies. Someone like [Massachusetts Gov. Deval] Patrick [D] is politically savvy enough to realize there's nothing to be gained.”

Coming into office at the end of an administration also makes the job less appealing, said David E. Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

“It's not as if you have 8 years ahead of you,” Lewis said. “You've only got the remainder of the administration left, and attention will turn pretty quickly toward the next president, which affects not just his prestige and power, but that of the administration.”

The final years of a presidency also tend to be a time of tougher relations between the White House and Capitol Hill, and that tense back-and-forth will only intensify if Republicans capture the Senate. Doing so would undoubtedly increase the uptick in congressional investigations of the administration, and subject the next attorney general to fiercer scrutiny.

“This all presents two problems,” Hudak said. “It's hard for the president to get his first, second, even fifth choice for the position, and it's hard to get a really talented person.”

On Friday, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats swear in three senators to gain majority Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE (D-Minn.) added her name to the list of potential candidates with no intention of seeking the position.

“I intend to continue my work for the people of Minnesota as their senator. We have a lot of work ahead in Congress in the next year and I want to be there to do it,” she said.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also sent out the message that she’s happy leading the University of California.

“It’s all speculative at this point, but she loves what she’s doing at the University of California,” said spokesman Steve Montiel.

Experts say that because of the political challenges, there are three types of nominees the president could select from.

The easiest could be an established law enforcement professional nearing the end of their career, and for whom the attorney general position could be a nice capstone. Alternatively, Obama could select a loyal aide or administration official with whom he is comfortable, such as U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli. Or, the president could opt for a career official within the Justice Department.

“That's not necessarily something that is too popular among presidents, especially for a top-tier Cabinet position, but it wouldn't necessarily be bad to pick someone who had a successful long-term career at [Justice] as a career civil servant,” Hudak said. “It's not unheard of in other Cabinet posts.”

The key, Hudak says, is finding a candidate who is palatable to Senate Democrats and could help usher them through what is sure to be a contentious confirmation process.

“Republican senators are going to come out pretty aggressively based on the candidate's records, but also based on Holder's record — you're going to really see Republican senators pressing the nominee on their past, and how they would be different from Eric Holder, because he's had such a contentious relationship with Congress,” he said.

For his part, Holder has committed to stay on the job until a successor is confirmed. He reiterated that pledge Friday, saying he is “not letting up” during his remaining time as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, however long that is.

“I woke up this morning and I was still the attorney general of the United States,” he said.