After a stormy 5½-year tenure, Attorney General Eric Holder formally announced Thursday that he plans to resign as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Holder's decision sets up what will likely be a bruising confirmation battle for his successor as President Obama's second term winds down.
The resignation robs Obama of one of his longest-serving aides — one of the handful who have been with him since the dawn of his history-making first term. Holder will stay on until his successor is confirmed.
"This is bittersweet," the president admitted as he formally announced the move in the White House's State Dining Room. "Eric has done a superb job."
Obama gave no hint of whom he might name for the job, but some administration officials have floated figures like Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and two-term Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
"I come to this moment with very mixed emotions," said Holder, who choked up as he thanked his wife and three children for the "sacrifices, often unfair" that they made while he held the post.
“In the months ahead, I will leave the Department of Justice, but I will never — I will never — leave the work. I will continue to serve and try to find ways to make our nation ever more true to our founding ideals,” he added.
After Holder finished speaking, to applause from invited guests, Obama told Holder, "You got through it."
His decision to leave sets up a confirmation battle that will help define Obama’s second term. Republicans are in good shape to retake the Senate in November, putting pressure on the White House to either find a compromise candidate or gird for a potential political war.
Holder, the first African-American U.S. attorney general, frequently found himself in political crossfire — assailed by Republicans in Congress over scandals like the Fast and Furious investigation and denounced by liberals for not taking a harder line on Wall Street after the 2007-2008 financial meltdown and for approving government surveillance programs that scoop up the personal information of millions of Americans not charged with a crime.
He also became a lightning rod for what critics condemned as the administration’s heavy-handed response to national security leaks, targeting reporters with extensive surveillance and even prosecution for refusing to reveal their sources.
Holder’s longevity in the face of such criticisms surprised many in Washington. He stands to have the third-longest tenure in the position if he remains in office into December, a Justice Department official noted.
The news of his planned departure was first reported by National Public Radio.
Obama highlighted Holder’s achievements since winning Senate confirmation in February 2009 by a 75-21 vote. He cited successful prosecutions of convicted terrorists, a crackdown on organized crime, suppression of financial fraud, and efforts to reduce racial disparities in sentencing.
Holder himself expressed pride in his efforts to safeguard the "most sacred of American rights," the right to vote.
Republicans, in turn, highlighted their clashes with Holder over controversies like the botched Fast and Furious gun-running sting and the IRS targeting of political organizations. GOP anger at Holder led the House of Representatives to hold him in contempt in 2012 over his refusal to turn over documents linked to the Fast and Furious operation.
Holder finalized his plans to leave the post in an hourlong conversation with Obama in the residence section of the White House over the Labor Day weekend, two officials said.
His plans after stepping down were unclear, though he could be expected to return to the powerful Covington and Burling law firm, where he worked in the years immediately prior to becoming attorney general.
Two Justice Department officials said Holder hoped to stay involved in issues raised by the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
“He has spoken with friends and associates about his wish to find a way, even after rejoining private life, to continue helping to restore trust between law enforcement and minority communities,” one official said.
One aspect of the job Holder is unlikely to miss: Sparring with congressional Republicans. After one unusually contentious face-off in 2013, Holder told lawmakers that he testified before them because he respected Congress' authority — not because he liked them.
“I don’t think I’ve been always treated with respect,” he said. “You may not like me, but I am the attorney general.”