Washington Former federal judge Michael Mukasey, a tough-on-terrorism jurist with an independent streak, was tapped by President Bush on Monday to take over as attorney general and lead a Justice Department accused of being too close to White House politics.
Mukasey, the former chief U.S. district judge in the Manhattan courthouse just blocks from ground zero, will likely face a relatively smooth confirmation by a Democratic-led Senate that has demanded new Justice Department leadership for months. He replaces Alberto Gonzales, a Texan who announced his departure three weeks ago amid investigations that began with the firing of U.S. attorneys and mushroomed into doubts about his credibility.
Appointed to the bench in 1987 by President Reagan, Mukasey also worked for four years as a trial prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in New York's southern district - one of the Justice Department's busiest and highest-profile offices in the country.
"The department faces challenges vastly different from those it faced when I was an assistant U.S. attorney 35 years ago," Mukasey, 66, said as he stood next to Bush on the White House lawn. "But the principles that guide the department remain the same: to pursue justice by enforcing the law with unswerving fidelity to the Constitution."
Mukasey said that, if confirmed, he hopes to give Justice employees "the support and the leadership they deserve."
Bush had a close personal relationship going back to Texas with Gonzales, whose resignation was effective Monday. He does not have such ties with Mukasey.
Mukasey had an interview with White House staff on Aug. 27, the day Gonzales announced his resignation, a senior administration official said. The president then met Mukasey on Sept. 1 and spent an hour with him.
Bush on Monday called Mukasey a "tough but fair judge" and praised his reputation as a smart and strong manager.
"Judge Mukasey is clear-eyed about the threat our nation faces," Bush said.
Senators who will vote on Mukasey's confirmation stopped short of pledging to support him. But most agreed to try to begin quickly confirmation hearings to fill more than a half-dozen vacant senior positions at the scandal-scarred Justice Department. The department has been under siege for months over criticism it was too closely tied to politics under Gonzales' reign.
"I think that he'll not only provide the president with first-rate legal counsel, but this nomination will go through Congress without much, if any, partisan politicking, and I think the country needs a break from another explosive, controversial nomination," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who knew Mukasey at Yale Law School in the mid-1960s.
There was even a sign of compromise in a simmering fight between the White House and Senate Democrats who want the administration to hand over data about its terrorist surveillance program. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., initially threatened to hold up Mukasey's nomination until the White House gives up the information.
"Our focus now will be on securing the relevant information we need so we can proceed to schedule fair and thorough hearings," Leahy said. "Cooperation from the White House will be essential in determining that schedule."