WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama's top choice for attorney general is Eric Holder, a former No. 2 Justice Department official in the Clinton administration and Obama campaign aide who would become the first African American to serve as the nation's chief lawyer.
The Obama transition team has gone so far as to ask senators whether they would confirm Holder, who reviewed Clinton's controversial pardon of fugitive Marc Rich just leaving office, an Obama official and people close to the matter said Tuesday.
But the Obama official said the decision has not been finalized, and transition spokesmen said no decision has been made.
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?"
One person involved in the talks said the Obama team has received some assurances that, while the 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 Clinton 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 a former judge and U.S. attorney in Washington, 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.