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Biden team explores Sen. Doug Jones for attorney general nominee as the candidate list narrows to four names

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) speaks at a news conference about an infrastructure and revitalization project on Aug. 23, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Elijah Nouvelage/for The Washington Post)
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President-elect Joe Biden’s top advisers have asked at least one outside advocacy group for input about Sen. Doug Jones as a potential attorney general, one indication that his team is giving serious consideration to the Alabama Democrat as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Biden is not expected to make a decision this week, prolonging the debate both inside and outside his transition team over what will be one of the highest-profile roles in his administration. It has sent the wider legal and political worlds into a frenzy, with Biden’s close-knit advisers keeping a tight lid on their decision-making process amid widespread interest over who will lead a consequential department whose morale has plummeted under an assault from President Trump.

It also has extended questions about the diversity of Biden’s Cabinet, as a range of groups press him to name a Black attorney general in the aftermath of a national racial reckoning on race that Biden has vowed to systematically address.

At least four candidates remain under serious consideration for the position, according to two people familiar with the decision-making process who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal discussions. In addition to Jones, top Biden advisers are eyeing former deputy attorney general Sally Yates, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. All but Patrick are White.

Jones, who lost his reelection bid in November, has a record that has impressed some civil rights groups. Allies have pointed to his time as a U.S. attorney, which included the prosecution two decades ago of Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church in which four young Black girls were killed.

In what has become another vital component during Biden’s selection of nominees, Jones has a long-standing relationship with the president-elect, dating back to 1978 when Biden went to Alabama to speak at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University and was introduced by a young Jones.

Jones later worked with Biden on the Senate Judiciary Committee and was the Alabama co-chair of Biden’s short-lived 1988 presidential campaign.

On Tuesday, a Biden transition official floated the possible selection of Jones to at least one outside advocacy group to ask whether he would be acceptable as a nominee, according to someone with knowledge of the call.

The Post’s Annie Linskey explains why President-elect Joe Biden’s early top Cabinet picks worry Black, Hispanic and Asian supporters. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Biden is under immense pressure from the civil rights community to select a diverse Cabinet, with representation particularly prized in the most powerful jobs, such as attorney general. During a Tuesday meeting with Biden that stretched nearly two hours, some civil rights leaders made clear they wanted Biden to pick a Black attorney general, or at least one focused on issues of civil rights and racial justice. So far Biden has selected four Black Cabinet-level nominees, including secretaries of defense and housing and urban development.

On Wednesday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote a letter to Biden commending him for two high-profile posts that went to Hispanics — the secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services — but urged him to appoint Tom Perez as attorney general. Perez served as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, secretary of labor and, most recently, head of the Democratic National Committee.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, said he told Biden during the meeting that he preferred a Black attorney general, but added, “the least we could have is someone who has a proven civil rights background.” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said his network had a “preference for an African American, civil rights-focused attorney general,” similar to Eric H. Holder Jr., who was President Barack Obama’s first attorney general.

Only one of those under consideration fits those criteria exactly: Patrick, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division for three years during the Clinton administration and briefly ran for president in 2020. But two people briefed on the discussions about Biden’s selection said Patrick’s chances of getting the job had slipped and the incoming administration was looking more seriously at Jones, Yates and Garland.

Yates and Garland would represent a repudiation of Washington Republicans. Yates briefly served as the acting attorney general under Trump, but was fired over her refusal to defend the first iteration of his travel ban, which temporarily barred entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world. Courts later struck down the ban, though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld a revised version. Garland was nominated to the Supreme Court by Obama in March of 2016, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to allow a vote on his nomination, which expired when Trump became president.

Merrick Garland was historically snubbed. But he emerged more prominent than ever.

Several top former Justice Department officials view Yates as best suited to repair the damage the Trump administration wreaked on morale and mission there.

“It’s not really close on the merits,” said one former Obama administration official. “She’s the most qualified candidate, who happens to be a woman.”

Yates, as the deputy attorney general in the Obama administration, worked to implement criminal justice restructuring and ordered the closure of private prisons under the Justice Department’s purview.

One transition adviser said that the very small group led by incoming Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain that has been vetting attorney general candidates has successfully kept its discussions closely held — even from other senior Biden transition advisers.

This person warned that much of the speculation about who will get the job is being generated by people who are rallying for or against specific candidates — in an unusually public way — rather than the tiny team actually helping Biden decide.

The civil rights leaders who met with Biden said the president-elect did not offer any commitments on particular candidates. They focused on broad qualifications, rather than throwing their muscle behind particular individuals.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said she stressed to Biden that his nominee should have “a demonstrated record of criminal justice reform, as well as civil rights,” and should be familiar with agency headquarters. Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, similarly said she advocated for a nominee who “knows the department well” and has “a demonstrated record on civil rights and criminal justice reform.”

Those would seem to be tacit endorsements of Yates, whose experience at the Justice Department is far broader and more recent than that of Garland or Jones. Ifill went so far as to mention Yates — as well as Patrick — by name, citing Yates’s closure of private prisons and her work on ending solitary confinement for juveniles.

“These are people with whom I have experience and whom I know well,” Ifill said of Patrick and Yates.

Some detractors, however, worry that Yates’s confirmation could be a bruising fight. Yates was among those to approve applications for the FBI to secretly surveil a former Trump campaign adviser during the FBI’s investigation of possible coordination between the campaign and the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.

Senate Republicans have scrutinized Yates and others’ supervision of the broader Russia probe — recently calling her to testify publicly about the matter — and Trump has attacked her as having “zero credibility.”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, seemed to take aim at the concern about a nominee’s confirmability, saying that it would be “deeply troubling and unacceptable” for Biden to let that govern his selection.

“Restoring the integrity of the Justice Department will be no easy task, and watered-down nominees will not be acceptable to our community,” Clarke said.

The attorney general nomination is one that could have special resonance for Biden and his team. Biden is the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Klain served as its chief counsel. Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris is the former California attorney general and as senator has served on the committee.

Last summer, after George Floyd’s killing by police officers in Minneapolis triggered nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism, Biden responded with new policy ideas.

He proposed a federal commission on police oversight, as well as standards governing when police can use force, including a ban on chokeholds. He proposed additional federal data collection on police misconduct and an expanded database on such incidents.

“Under the Biden Administration, the Justice Department will again use its authority to root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing,” he wrote in his criminal justice plan.

Sharpton said another key priority should be diversity in the state court system. He wants Biden’s attorney general to commit to ensure that more Black judges are named at all levels of government.

“Delaware’s going to be ground zero,” Sharpton said, noting that Biden’s home state has few Black judges. “In 2020 what is not acceptable is to have apartheid benches — and not in the home state of the president that we Black voters put in.”

Annie Linskey, Carol D. Leonnig and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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