WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush, seeking to avert a possible confirmation fight over a more partisan candidate, chose retired federal judge Michael B. Mukasey Monday to replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. “Judge Mukasey is clear-eyed about the threat our nation faces,” Bush said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Mukasey, who has handled terrorism cases for more than a decade, would become Bush’s third attorney general.
Bush said that as chief judge of the busy U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Mukasey presided over high-profile national security cases.
“He knows what it takes to fight this war effectively and he knows how to do it in a manner consistent with our laws and our Constitution,” Bush said, standing next to Mukasey in the Rose Garden.
Bush urged the Senate to quickly confirm Mukasey.
If Mukasey gets a nod from the Senate, he would take charge of a Justice Department where morale is low following months of investigations into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and Gonzales’ sworn testimony on the Bush administration’s terrorist surveillance program.
Mukasey said he was honored to be Bush’s nominee to take the helm of the department.
“My finest hope and prayer at this time is that, if confirmed, I can give them the support and the leadership they deserve,” he said.
“I look forward to meeting with members of Congress in the days ahead and, if confirmed, to working with Congress to meet our nation’s challenges,” Mukasey said just before shaking the president’s hand and walking back with him into the Oval Office.
There had been rampant speculation that Bush might turn to former Solicitor General Ted Olson for the job, but key Democrats on Capitol Hill said they believed Olson too partisan a figure and indicated they would fight his nomination.
Senate Democrats declared no outright opposition to Mukasey’s nomination. But they made it clear that there would be no confirmation hearings until the administration answers outstanding questions about the White House’s role in the firings of federal prosecutors over the winter.
“Our focus now will be on securing the relevant information we need so we can proceed to schedule fair and thorough hearings,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said. “Cooperation from the White House will be essential in determining that schedule.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he believes the president listened to Congress and decided against a more partisan replacement for Gonzales. He said Mukasey had “strong professional credentials and a reputation for independence.”
“A man who spent 18 years on the federal bench surely understands the importance of checks and balances and knows how to say no to the president when he oversteps the Constitution,” said Reid, D-Nev. “But there should be no rush to judgment. The Senate Judiciary Committee must carefully examine Judge Mukasey’s views on the complex legal challenges facing the nation.”
Mukasey’s family joined the nominee at the announcement, staged under sunny skies on the White House lawn.
Mukasey, chosen in large part for his experience in national security matters, noted the threat of terrorism in his brief remarks.
“Thirty five years ago, our foreign adversaries saw widespread devastation as a deterrent,” he said. “Today, our fanatical enemies see it as a divine fulfillment.”
Bush gave a quick, final nod to the departed attorney general, Gonzales, who resigned after months of turmoil and accusations of mismanagement.
“I’ve known Al and his family for more than a decade,” Bush said. “He’s a dear friend and a trusted adviser.”
Until a new attorney general is confirmed by the Senate, Bush said, Assistant Attorney General Peter D. Keisler will serve as acting attorney general. Keisler oversaw the Bush administration’s lengthy legal fight over the rights of terrorism war-era prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Keisler announced his resignation from the department in early September and was nominated by Bush earlier this year for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The Senate has not acted on Keisler’s nomination. Bush said that Keisler had agreed to stay on at the Justice Department, which will allow Solicitor General Paul Clement to focus on his duties as the government’s chief advocate as the Supreme Court nears the opening of its new fall term.
Before taking charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Division in 2003, Keisler was a principal deputy associate attorney general and acting associate attorney general.
He came to the department from the Washington law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood.