Barack Obama’s apparent decision to ask Eric Holder to be his attorney general is not without peril for a young president-elect who has repeatedly promised to clean up the scandal polluted, partisan atmosphere of Washington.
Senate Republicans will lack the strength to deny confirmation to Holder, the former deputy U.S. attorney general under Bill Clinton. But they certainly can make his nomination their first big challenge of the new administration and in the process give Obama some very bad moments by resurrecting one of the more questionable last minute actions by an outgoing president in recent history.
In the waning days of the Clinton administration, Holder was a key participant in awarding clemency to fugitive billionaire financier Marc Rich and some 139 others in a process that short circuited the Justice department clearance process and looked, in Rich’s case, very much like a quid pro quo for financial support from the convicted felon’s wife for Clinton’s presidential library. The highly controversial pardons took place just two hours before Clinton left the White House for the last time.
A congressional report noted that Holder worked closely with a White House aide to make certain that neither concerned parties in the Justice department nor federal prosecutors in New York responsible for the Rich case would have a chance to protest the clemency. They weren’t notified that it was pending. The report said that Holder also did not present any credible evidence supporting the presidential action on Rich, who for some time had managed first to elude authorities and then to avoid extradition on a federal fugitive warrant.
A former FBI official close to the case at the time called Holder’s participation "a disgrace." He said the bureau had spent time, money and effort unsuccessfully to arrest Rich.
"If the new president is serious about clearing the air of a foul smell in Washington, how can he nominate someone who lent himself to clemency for a convicted felon who fled the country to avoid prison and used his money to stay out and ultimately buy a pardon? "
Holder, a key adviser to Obama, seems otherwise qualified for the nation’s top law enforcement job and he has bipartisan support in the legal community. He is a former U.S. Attorney and superior court judge for the District of Columbia and is a member of a top Washington law firm.
However, Senate Democrats, who have been so aggressively pursuing allegations of improper White House influence at Justice under President Bush, must now anticipate revisiting the same charges made against Clinton. So far Democrats on the Senate Judiciary committee unsurprisingly have cheered Holder’s potential nomination, choosing to ignore the appearance of impropriety in the clemency matter.
So how does Holder survive the now famous vetting process for Obama hires, which demands explicit answers to 63 questions covering every aspect of a person’s life from inception through adulthood? No one should doubt that the Rich incident would be the kiss of death if the nomination were being made by a Republican administration. Democrats on Capitol Hill would be gleeful.
There is another question here that goes to Obama’s pledges of a new, improved regime. How many former FOB’s (Friends of Bill) does he plan to name? He is considering Sen. Hillary Clinton for the State Department and already has placed several others from her husband’s White House in key spots, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who will be the incoming chief of staff. This is change?
Sen. Clinton may have moved one step closer to the Secretary of State nomination with her husband’s agreement to reveal his list of donors. He probably would also have to pledge to curtail overseas activities that might pose a serious conflict of interest for her. Certainly, Sen. Clinton would be the chief diplomat with far more experience abroad than her boss and it seems inevitable there would be a test of wills at some point. For that reason alone he might wish to reconsider.
With two controversial appointments — Holder and Clinton –the new president might just get an early lesson or two about Washington that he missed while spending so much time stumping for the job.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)