Eric Holder to step down

Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderDems plot next move in Trump tax-return battle Former Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' Holder: Any 'competent' prosecutor could win obstruction case against Trump MORE, one of President Obama’s longest serving lieutenants, is stepping down.

Holder, widely rumored to have been planning his departure before the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., thrust the Justice Department into the national spotlight, announced his resignation Thursday afternoon.

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The country’s first black attorney general, Holder presided over an ambitious agenda that included the administration’s decision to stop its defense of the federal ban on same-sex marriage and dramatic policy shifts meant to end disparities in the federal criminal justice system.

"In the months ahead, I will leave the Department of Justice – but I will never leave the work," he said in tearful remarks at the White House. "I will continue to serve and try to find ways to make our nation even more true to its founding ideals."

Holder's tenure was also marred by controversy. He resisted calls for his resignation in the wake of the administration’s arms trafficking Operation Fast & Furious, in which federal authorities lost track of hundreds of guns, some of which ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. 

The House voted in 2012 to hold Holder in contempt of Congress over his refusal to comply with a subpoena issued as part of a Republican investigation into the botched operation.

President Obama, who stood aside Holder during the announcement, offered his steadfast defense of Holder throughout the tumult.

“Holder’s accomplishments have established a historic legacy of civil rights enforcement and restoring fairness to the criminal justice system,” a White House official said, confirming the departure. “Holder revitalized the Department’s praised Civil Rights Division, protected the rights of the LGBT community, successfully prosecuted terrorists, and fought tirelessly for voting rights, to name a few."

Republicans wasted little time Thursday in bidding Holder, a politically divisive figure throughout his tenure, good riddance.

Among them was House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a frequent foil to Holder who led the Fast & Furious probe and subsequent contempt effort.

“By needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement, Attorney General Holder’s legacy has eroded more confidence in our legal system than any Attorney General before him,” Issa (R-Calif.) said.

Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) described Holder’s legacy at the Justice Department as “political, combative, and uncooperative.”

“He set a bad precedent for future Attorneys General and undermined the trust of the American people in their government,” Boustany said in a statement.

Sen. David Vitter, also a Republican from Louisiana, was more succinct.

“Anyone sad to see Eric Holder stepping down as AG?” he asked on Twitter. “Not me.”

Defending Holder from an onslaught of Republican criticism, congressional Democrats on Thursday hailed his focus on voting rights, sentencing reform and hate crime issues.

“Attorney General Holder has been an extraordinary leader of the Department of Justice, and is to be congratulated for his service,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I particularly appreciate how Attorney General Holder has restored the Civil Rights Division to its historical mission.”

Holder will remain at the Department of Justice until his post is filled, and no successor will be named Thursday. The Justice Department official suggested Holder could remain on the job until December.

His decision comes weeks before a pivotal midterm election that could see Republicans seize control of the Senate. That scenario would give the GOP power to block presidential nominations in the waning years of the Obama administration, complicating President Obama’s choice of who to tap as a successor.

Holder, one of just three Cabinet members from President Obama’s original team still serving in the same post, was said to be mulling retirement prior to the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo.

The episode set off weeks of riots and sparked a national debate over race and police use of force. Holder was at the forefront, traveling to Ferguson and launching federal civil rights probes into both the shooting and the town’s police force.

Last week, he announced a national study into racial bias at police departments around the country.

Meanwhile, Holder discussed his exit with Obama on numerous occasions, according to the Justice Department official. The plans were finalized during an hourlong conversation with the president at the White House residence during the Labor Day weekend, the official said.

Holder’s preferred legacy is as a fighter for civil rights on several fronts.

He championed the administration’s 2011 decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibited same-sex couples from receiving certain federal benefits. That position, Holder noted, was upheld by the Supreme Court, which later struck down main provisions of the statute.

He has also spearheaded the DOJ’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which, launched last year, is meant to target racial and social disparities in the justice system, emphasizing diversion programs over incarceration.

Under Holder, the Justice Department has also changed its sentencing policies to keep people accused of low-level federal drug crimes from facing mandatory minimum sentences that the administration views as unduly harsh.

Holder will seek to build on that legacy during his remaining time in office.

The Justice Department is preparing to roll out a set of new curbs designed to combat racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies. The new policy will go beyond race and include considerations of ethnicity and religion. For the first time, they will apply to national security investigations.

The agency is also wrapping up a review of death penalty policies at the federal level, as well as in states around the country, following a series of mishandled executions.

He has also not ruled out criminal charges against Wall Street executives in connection with practices viewed as helping to cause the economic crisis.

Holder, in recent months, has announced a series of record multibillion-dollar civil settlements with major banks over fraud allegations but has come under fire from some on the political left for not bringing criminal cases.

Robert Weissman, president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said Holder’s failure to bring Wall Street CEOs to justice has “badly blemished” his record.

“Holder came into office in the immediate aftermath of a devastating financial crisis caused by an epidemic of corporate crime and wrongdoing,” he said. “Five years later, he has failed utterly to hold the perpetrators of the crisis accountable.”

— This story was last updated at 1:38 p.m.