Outgoing interim U.S. attorney Michael R. Sherwin, a career prosecutor from Miami named last spring by then-U.S. Attorney William P. Barr, announced the leadership change in an internal office email Tuesday, which the department confirmed.
“As we previously announced, interim U.S. attorney Sherwin will be leaving his post this week. At the request of the department leadership, he has agreed to remain in D.C. for a brief period to help ensure a smooth transition in the oversight of the Jan. 6 Capitol breach investigation and prosecutions,” a department spokesman said.
Phillips will take office Wednesday on an interim basis until a new U.S. attorney for the District is confirmed, the spokesman said. The spokesman did not make clear whether Phillips is in contention for the permanent nomination.
Phillips did not seek the position but was approached and agreed to return from retirement to an office he first joined in 1990, a person familiar with the move said on the condition of anonymity to describe a personal conversation.
Phillips referred questions to the Justice Department.
A longtime supporter, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), said she recommended Phillips to serve as U.S. attorney in 2015 but did not play a role his current selection. Norton said she just completed interviewing more than a dozen candidates and recommended a nominee to the White House, whom she declined to name, saying it was for President Biden to announce.
“What this indicates to me is that the business of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia is particularly urgent,” Norton said. The District’s nonvoting representative to Congress added that the Biden team wanted to fill the post so swiftly that she bypassed a judicial nominating commission and vetted candidates herself.
Former U.S. attorneys of both parties as well as current and former office veterans praised Phillips as a steady and experienced hand to take over an office that has been deeply divided and demoralized.
“Channing Phillips is universally respected, trusted, and beloved by those in the U.S. attorney’s office and by the whole city. . . . He’s always done what’s right for the office and right for the mission,” said Kenneth Wainstein, former U.S. attorney, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division and assistant to the president for national security under President George W. Bush.
Wainstein added, “He will instantly boost morale in the office at the same time that he will instantly boost the reputation and image of the office for the outside world. He’s the perfect person to navigate the office back to calmer waters.”
Unusual in size and jurisdiction, the federal prosecutor’s office in the District handles both federal and local crimes, prosecuting everything from complex terrorism and financial fraud cases to drug and violent street crimes.
Since late 2019, several assistant U.S. attorneys have quit cases or left the office over the Justice Department’s handling of politically sensitive cases, including its intervention in the sentencing recommendation for Trump adviser Roger Stone and abandonment of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s prosecution. Flynn and Stone were later pardoned by Trump for their role in the FBI’s investigation of Trump campaign contacts with Russia in the 2016 election.
The controversies coincided with Barr’s abrupt replacement of Jessie K. Liu in February 2020, first with another acting appointee, Timothy J. Shea, whose nomination was never forwarded to the Senate. The Trump administration in May appointed Cleveland federal prosecutor Justin Herdman to take over, but his 11th-hour nomination was never acted on by the Senate. Sherwin took over as interim U.S. attorney after Shea’s departure. Both Shea and Sherwin were at the time of their appointments top aides to Barr or his deputy attorney general.
At the same time, an office initiative championed by Liu to crack down on gun crimes in the District proved controversial. Several Black prosecutors openly called on Sherwin last year the end the program, saying the policy disproportionately subjected African American defendants to lengthier prison terms at a time when the city and country were roiled by racial justice demonstrations.
The managerial turnaround role is a familiar one for Phillips, who also served as Barack Obama’s choice as acting U.S. attorney from October 2015 to September 2017. At the time, he took over an office reeling from its botched campaign finance investigation of former D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray, and served through the presidential transition and confirmation of Trump appointee Liu.
Phillips started in the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia in 1994 when he was hired by former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., then the city’s top prosecutor. Phillips later became spokesman and counselor for a succession of top federal prosecutors in Washington from 1997 to 2010.
In 2009, Phillips briefly served as acting U.S. attorney when Holder became attorney general, but he was passed over for the top spot. He moved to the Justice Department as Holder’s senior adviser in 2010 and stayed on to work for Holder successor Loretta E. Lynch before returning to the prosecutor’s office in 2015.
Praised by judges as well as by U.S. attorneys appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents for his backbone and management skill, Phillips retired from the Justice Department in 2017.
A District native, Phillips is the eldest child of late Shaw clergyman and politician Channing E. Phillips, who at the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention became the first Black person to be placed in nomination for president by a major political party.
District delegates named the elder Phillips — Washington’s Democratic National Committee member from 1968 to 1972 and a civil rights activist and housing advocate — as a hometown favorite candidate in place of the slain Robert F. Kennedy. The elder Phillips ran unsuccessfully in 1971 in the first election for Washington’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.