Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided to name Zachary Terwilliger — a career federal prosecutor who most recently worked as chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — to serve as the interim U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, Justice Department officials said.
The move will put Terwilliger, 37, at the center of some of the Justice Department’s most high-profile cases, including the investigation of the WikiLeaks organization and its founder, Julian Assange, and the discussions of what to do with the two British members of an Islamic State cell believed to be responsible for the brutal murders of Western hostages.
Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman for President Trump, is also scheduled to go on trial in the Eastern District this summer, and while that case is being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a prosecutor from the U.S. attorney’s office has been assigned to the team.
The appointment will allow Terwilliger to run the office without Senate confirmation on an interim basis, and he will formally start doing so Friday, Justice Department officials said. He can serve in the post for 120 days, and after that would have to be appointed by the chief judge in the district. He will replace Tracy Doherty-McCormick, who had held the role on an acting basis.
“Zach Terwilliger has a strong record that any prosecutor would be proud of,” Sessions said. “He rose through the ranks in the Eastern District of Virginia, from summer intern to Assistant United States Attorney who made a name for himself successfully prosecuting MS-13 members, Bloods members and firearm offenders, and putting them behind bars. He has excelled both in the courtroom and now in some of the highest leadership roles at the Department of Justice. I am confident that he will continue to serve with distinction in this important new role.”
The U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia — which has more than 120 prosecutors and lawyers working in Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News — is a familiar place to Terwilliger. He began his career as an assistant U.S. attorney there in 2008, and spent much of the next 10 years prosecuting fraud, violent crime and human trafficking cases. He served as counselor to a previous U.S. attorney, Neil MacBride.
Terwilliger is generally viewed by the prosecutors he will lead as smart and ambitious, although some have privately questioned whether he is experienced enough to run an office that is considered among the most important in the country. Home to the CIA and the Pentagon, the district long played host to some of the nation’s most high-profile terrorism and national security cases, including the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, a conspirator in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
MacBride said: “Zach is a prosecutor’s prosecutor and will have immediate credibility with his colleagues, the bench, the defense bar and his local law enforcement partners. He’s principled, smart, fair and even tempered. Having spent the last year on some of the toughest issues facing DOJ, he’s got the independence and experience to lead this critical office at a critical time.”
Trump has yet to nominate a permanent U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, although Terwilliger could still get that appointment, and it seems likely he could win Senate confirmation. From the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2016, Terwilliger worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) on legislative issues. Last month, he won the recommendation of Virginia’s two Democratic senators for the U.S. attorney’s job — virtually assuring himself the spot, if the White House agreed.
Terwilliger’s father, former deputy attorney general George J. Terwilliger III, is considered something of a powerhouse in conservative legal circles.
Terwilliger’s only obstacle might be his closeness with Rosenstein, who has drawn intense criticism from the president for his handling of the Mueller probe. Terwilliger has worked as an associate deputy attorney general in Rosenstein’s office on corporate compliance and violent crime issues. He was recently made Rosenstein’s chief of staff, although a Justice Department official familiar with the matter said he does not have any role in Mueller’s probe — which is the source of much of the president’s frustration.