By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007
President Bush is expected to choose a replacement for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales by the middle of next week, and former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson has emerged as one of the leading contenders for the job, according to sources inside and outside the government who are familiar with White House deliberations.
Other candidates still in the running include former deputy attorney general George J. Terwilliger III and D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Laurence H. Silberman, according to the sources, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Others whose names continue to be mentioned in congressional and political circles include Pepsico general counsel Larry D. Thompson, a former deputy attorney general; Solicitor General Paul D. Clement; and Verizon general counsel William P. Barr, who served as attorney general for Bush's father. A person close to Barr said yesterday, however, that he does not appear to be on the short list of candidates now being considered.
Administration officials emphasized that no decision has been made, in part because Bush has been traveling abroad for the past week and is not scheduled to return to the White House from Australia until tomorrow. A final choice is not expected until at least several days after that, and the nominee could be someone whose name has not surfaced publicly, the officials said.
The search for a new attorney general follows Gonzales's announcement last month that he would resign effective Sept. 17 after seven months of conflict with Congress, primarily over his handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.
Leading Democrats have urged Bush to choose a nominee who is not unduly partisan or divisive, but White House officials have said they are willing to fight for the right candidate. Whoever takes the short-term post will face a strained relationship with Congress and ongoing internal investigations by the department's inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility into the prosecutor firings and related issues.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, met with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding this week to discuss the search and to repeat Democratic requests for access to documents and witnesses related to the prosecutor firings, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
The persistent mention of Olson as a possible candidate has surprised and upset some Democrats, who view the well-known GOP attorney as a sharp-edged partisan who they contend would not be the best choice for a Justice Department accused of becoming overly politicized. Leahy voted against Olson's appointment as solicitor general in 2001, citing his "non-responsiveness" to questions about alleged ties to a conservative magazine's investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
"A lot of Democrats up here would view that as a shocking and unwise choice," one Senate aide said.
But Olson, who represented Bush in the legal battle over the 2000 presidential election, also is widely admired by members of both parties for his legal skills and sharp intellect. Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, endorsed Olson for the attorney general's job in a recent opinion article, calling him "a principled and independent thinker who will focus on the word 'Justice' in the Department's name."
Olson's then-wife, Barbara K. Olson, was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, on American Airlines Flight 77 when hijackers crashed it into the Pentagon. Theodore Olson has since remarried.
Olson and other potential candidates have repeatedly declined to comment on the White House search.
Gonzales has kept a low profile since announcing his resignation on Aug. 27. His only public appearance in the past week was a speech Thursday at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
Clement will serve as acting attorney general until a new leader is confirmed by the Senate.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and John Solomon contributed to this report.