The knotty issues that the next attorney general will have to untangle come on top of a slew of policy decisions and reallocation of resources — some of which may require legislation, voting rights enforcement, antitrust enforcement, drug enforcement, criminal justice reform, actions on environmental crime and dozens of other matters. The new attorney general may need to fire all or most of the U.S. attorneys hired by Trump and fill those vacancies with competent men and women of sterling character.
Unlike Trump, Biden understands the proper role of the attorney general — and of the White House counsel, for that matter. Neither is his personal lawyer. NBC reports: “President-elect Joe Biden has privately told advisers that he doesn’t want his presidency to be consumed by investigations of his predecessor.” In addition, “Biden wants his Justice Department to function independently from the White House, aides said, and Biden isn’t going to tell federal law enforcement officials whom or what to investigate or not to investigate.”
In other words, he must select someone whose judgment and character are impeccable, and whose priorities sync up with his own. The model should be Edward H. Levi, the first attorney general after Watergate, who instituted a slew of reforms and restored the department’s reputation.
Biden should not ask prospective candidates if they will investigate Trump (avoiding the appearance of picking someone to investigate his political opponents), but he should feel free to ask how they might make that decision. He would be wise to avoid telling a potential pick how to clean house at the Justice Department, but he certainly should inquire as to that pick’s thinking on the topic. Biden should offer full cooperation on preventing politicization of individual enforcement matters and instruct his choice to immediately report any improper attempts to interfere with prosecutorial judgments.
Given all that will be on the attorney general’s plate and the deep ethical problems ahead, Biden should be looking forward to someone who will have instant credibility within the department, with courts and with the public. After vice president, this will arguably be Biden’s most important personnel decision.