WASHINGTON – Eric Holder, formerly second in charge at the Justice Department, is President-elect Barack Obama's top choice to become attorney general, an Obama official and people close to the matter said Tuesday. Holder's selection would mark Obama's first step toward filling his Cabinet, and he would become the nation's first black attorney general if confirmed by the Senate.
Obama would be putting a career prosecutor at the helm of a department beset by low morale and internal investigations. He has called on the Justice Department to be immune from political influence from Congress and the White House.
"Internally, there is a morale problem the likes of which I have never seen before," Holder said in an interview late last year. "Externally, there is a crisis of confidence that the nation has with regard to the department."
A member of Obama's foreign policy working group, Holder also would be called on to help close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, as Obama has promised to do, and prosecute terrorism suspects.
An Obama official and two Democrats in touch with the transition team confirmed that Holder is Obama's top choice but the Obama official said the decision has not been finalized.
Holder did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday. Asked Monday by The Associated Press whether he expected to be nominated, he responded in an e-mail: "Who knows?"
In the past week, Obama aides have asked Senate Republicans whether they would support Holder. In particular, the aides questioned whether Holder's confirmation would be delayed because of his involvement in the 2001 pardon of fugitive Marc Rich by President Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency.
One person involved in the talks said the Obama team has received some assurances that, while the Rich pardon would certainly come up during hearings, the nomination likely wouldn't be held up. All spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
"I wouldn't want to articulate it among the top items but it's worthwhile to look at," he told reporters.
Asked if Holder would be a good choice for attorney general, Specter said it was too soon to say.
"I know something of Holder's work in the Clinton administration and that's about it," he said. "I'd have to take a much closer look at his record and talk to him and think about it."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had not been informed about Holder, his spokeswoman said.
On the last day of Clinton's term, Holder, then the deputy attorney general, was asked whether the president should pardon Rich, a wealthy commodities dealer who had spent years running from tax charges. Holder said he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" on the pardon. Clinton later cited that as among the factors that persuaded him to issue the pardon.
Holder has publicly apologized for what he said was a snap decision that he should have paid more attention to. Had he taken more time to review the case, he would have advised against a pardon, he said.
Holder, 57, also is a former judge and U.S. attorney in Washington, and is widely respected in legal circles and among Justice Department career lawyers. He has been on Obama's short list to be attorney general since before the election, and already has had private conversations about how he would run the department.
One of his top priorities, according to a person familiar with his thinking, is to rebuild the department's reputation after its fiercely independent image was tarnished by charges of political meddling by the White House during the Bush administration.
For that reason, Holder has been reluctant to lobby for the attorney general's post for fear the Rich pardon would invite a bloody nomination process and further strain the department's credibility, this person said.
Holder has been one of Obama's most trusted advisers. He was a member of the team that helped select Sen. Joe Biden as Obama's running mate. The two have known each other only briefly, however, after meeting at a dinner party four years ago.
Holder has other deep ties to Obama's team. Holder's wife, an obstetrician, delivered incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's daughter.