Washington (AP) - Washington attorney Eric Holder is President-elect Barack Obama's top choice to be the next attorney general and aides have gone so far as to ask senators whether he would be confirmed, an Obama official and people close to the matter said Tuesday.
Holder, a former U.S. attorney who served as the No. 2 official in the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton, would be the nation's first black attorney general.
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 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.
On the last day of Clinton's term, Holder 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 towards 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.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Nedra Pickler and Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.
Washington attorney Eric Holder is President-elect Barack Obama's top choice to be the next attorney general and aides have gone so far as to ask senators whether he would be confirmed, an Obama official and people close to the matter said Tuesday.