Biden’s High-Stakes Attorney General Pick Slides to Back of Line

December 23, 2020by Chris Strohm and Jennifer Epstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)
President-elect Joe Biden speaks prior to the holiday at the Queen Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden spoke ahead of the Christmas holiday and called the $900 billion coronavirus aid bill passed by Congress on Monday a start, insisting on more economic relief after the inauguration. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images/TNS)

Less than a month before he is sworn in, President-elect Joe Biden has not yet selected his attorney general, a key role given how politicized the department became under President Donald Trump and while federal officials are investigating Biden’s son.

Biden is leaving his choice for attorney general as one of the last major positions he’ll fill, after already announcing his picks for secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security and others.

Biden was asked Tuesday why he’s waiting to name an attorney general, as the delay means his choice will have less time to get prepared for a potentially bruising confirmation battle before taking over the Justice Department. Biden also hasn’t yet named his picks for other key positions, such as Labor secretary and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

At his year-end news conference Tuesday, Biden said he would make more Cabinet announcements before the New Year and denied he was waiting for the results of two Senate runoff elections in Georgia to name the top law enforcement officer.

Biden said the Justice Department in his administration will be far less political than it was under Trump.

“The attorney general of the United States of America is not the president’s lawyer,” Biden said, noting that he would appoint someone to enforce the law “as written but not guided by me.”

Top contenders under consideration to be attorney general include outgoing Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and federal judge and former Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, according to people familiar with the transition process.

Biden is said to be taking a very deliberative approach toward naming an attorney general, given his previous stint as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Georgia Senate runoff races will determine which party controls the Senate and will run any subsequent confirmation hearings.

The Democrats need to win both seats in the Jan. 5 election to split the Senate 50-50, leaving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote.

If Republicans maintain control, then Jones might be the best pick, given that he has bipartisan support, according to a person familiar with the discussions. If Democrats take over the Senate, then Biden might be emboldened to choose a more controversial attorney general like Yates, who has tangled with the Trump administration and Senate Republicans, the person said.

Regardless of who he picks, Biden’s choice will confront significant political land mines, including immediate questions about how to handle the criminal investigation into Hunter Biden. The probe into the younger Biden is believed to be linked to tax-related issues over his business dealings in China, although he also has been investigated over his business dealings in Ukraine.

Republicans such as Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham are demanding that a special counsel be appointed to investigate Hunter Biden.

The new attorney general also might have to decide whether to investigate Trump and perhaps his allies once he leaves office, and how to handle the inquiry into possible wrongdoing during the Russia probe, which is now being led by a special counsel.

Trump’s Justice Department has come under withering criticism, with former officials and Democrats saying it has been bent to his will and allowed politics to drive decision-making, from decisions about sentencing of key presidential allies to moves to ensure an inquiry into the origins of the Russia probe continue into the Biden administration.

“People need to be reassured that the government can be trusted, that the Justice Department can be trusted and that we have a system where no one person is above the law,” said Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general under Republican President George H.W. Bush. “The biggest single thing is to have an attorney general who will make it the main point of their first two years to restore trust in the Justice Department.”

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