This post was last updated at 4:44 p.m. ET.
Eric Holder Jr., the nation's first black U.S. attorney general, will resign his post after a tumultuous tenure marked by civil rights advances, national security threats, reforms to the criminal justice system and 5 1/2 years of fights with Republicans in Congress.
President Obama said on Thursday that Holder, 63, intends to leave the Justice Department as soon as his successor is confirmed, a process that could run through 2014 and even into next year. A former U.S. government official says Holder has been increasingly "adamant" about his desire to leave soon. Holder and President Obama discussed his departure several times and finalized things in a long meeting over Labor Day weekend at the White House.
Holder already is one of the longest-serving members of the Obama Cabinet and currently ranks as the fourth-longest tenured AG in history. Hundreds of employees waited in lines, stacked three rows deep, in early February 2009 to witness his return to the Justice Department, where he previously worked as a young corruption prosecutor and as deputy attorney general — the second in command — during the Clinton administration.
But some of that early glow faded in part due to the politicized nature of the job and in part because of Holder's own rhetoric, such as a 2009 Black History Month speech where he said the country was "a nation of cowards" when it comes to discussions about racial tension.
Five years later, violence erupted between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after a white policeman killed an unarmed black 18-year-old. And this time, the White House dispatched Holder to speak his piece, in effect jump-starting that conversation and helping to settle nerves in the frayed community.
Another huge controversy — over his decision to try the Sept. 11 plotters in a New York courthouse in the shadow of the twin towers of the World Trade Center — prompted venomous reaction from lawmakers, New York City officials and some victims' families.
Under pressure that threatened his job and his legacy, the attorney general reversed his decision and instead sent the cases to military court — where they continue to languish even as Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and other terrorism defendants are serving life sentences in maximum-security prisons on American soil.
Holder most wants to be remembered for his record on civil rights: refusing to defend a law that defined marriage as between one man and one woman; suing North Carolina and Texas over voting restrictions that disproportionately affect minorities and the elderly; launching 20 investigations of abuses by local police departments; and using his bully pulpit to lobby Congress to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Many of those sentences disproportionately hurt minority communities.
And then there's his relationship with Congress. From the day Holder's nomination was announced, Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled that he would be a political lightning rod.
The attorney general's portfolio, which spans sensitive law enforcement cases and hot-button social issues including marijuana and gay marriage, didn't help. But even longtime aides say Holder didn't do enough to help himself by shrugging off preparations and moot sessions before congressional appearances and speaking off the cuff — and obliquely.
Things hit a crisis point when the GOP-led House voted him in contempt for refusing to hand over documents about a gun trafficking scandal known as Fast and Furious. That represented the first time an attorney general had ever been rebuked that way, but still Holder held on to his job.
In the end, the decision to leave was Holder's alone — two sources told NPR that the White House would have been happy to have him stay a full eight years and to avoid what could be a contentious nomination fight for his successor.
The attorney general told DOJ staff the news this morning and called civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Ethel Kennedy, the widow of former AG Robert F. Kennedy.
The sources say a leading candidate for the job is Solicitor General Don Verrilli, the administration's top representative to the Supreme Court and a lawyer whose judgment and discretion are prized in both DOJ and the White House.
Friends and former colleagues say Holder has made no decisions about his next professional perch, but they say it would be no surprise if he returned to the law firm Covington & Burling, where he spent years representing corporate clients.
The friends say Holder is also considering donating his papers to a university in Washington, D.C., or his native New York, where he could establish a civil rights center to work more on law enforcement interactions with communities of color and host public forums on those issues.
Even though the attorney general has his eyes on the door, the two sources say several more policy and enforcement initiatives are underway and could be announced soon.
For instance, Holder sent a memo to U.S. attorneys Wednesday urging them not to use sentencing enhancements known as "851" tools to gain leverage in plea negotiations with defendants — in essence, threatening defendants into avoiding trial with huge amounts of prison time. The practice has been criticized by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn and other jurists.
Holder is also expected to notify federal prosecutors in coming days that the Justice Department will no longer require defendants who plead guilty to waive their rights to appeal based on ineffective lawyering. Many U.S. attorneys now forgo that practice, but not all.
Long-awaited racial profiling guidelines for federal agents will be released soon, too. Those guidelines will make clear that sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion are not legitimate bases for law enforcement suspicion, but controversial mapping of certain communities — including Muslim Americans — would still be allowed for national security investigations, one of the sources said.
Update at 4:44 p.m. ET. An Emotional Goodbye:
In an emotional ceremony at the White House on Thursday, President Obama said that saying goodbye to Holder was "bittersweet."
He described the attorney general as having a "deep, abiding commitment to equal justice under the law," and to taking steps that further guarantee everyone's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In his own speech, Holder fought back tears. He said beyond having a strong working relationship with Obama, "I am proud to call you a friend."
Holder said Obama's administration has "done much to make real the promise of our democracy."
Stepping down now, he said, means the end of his public service. But it doesn't mean he'll stop working.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce his resignation. NPR has learned he's leaving after more than five years as the nation's first African-American attorney general. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson broke this story just a few minutes ago on Morning Edition, and she's back to tell us more. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So what have you learned about how this came to happen and why Eric Holder is leaving now.
JOHNSON: Sure. Eric Holder had never intended to stay a full two terms. He's talked about that for a long time. That said, Audie, he's still one of President Obama's longest serving cabinet members and if he stays through December, as appears to be his intention since he's going to wait until the Senate confirms his successor, he'll still be the third longest serving Attorney General in the U.S. history, which is no small feat.
CORNISH: Now, the Justice Department has been at or near the center of lots of news controversies, and many have considered him a political lightening rod, no?
JOHNSON: For sure, he's been a target of GOP leaders in the Senate and the House for years now, over his treatment of some national security cases, the handling of the gun trafficking scandal, known as "Fast and Furious", and some hot-button social issues like enforcement of marijuana laws. But Audie, he also leaves a relatively substantial legacy in terms of civil rights and sentencing reform and gay rights too. For starters he sued Texas and North Carolina over what he perceives to be restrictive voting rights laws that hurt minorities disproportionally. He refused to defend a federal law that defined marriages between one man and one woman, which paved the way for a Supreme Court ruling in the Windsor case that gave federal benefits to a lot of gay and lesbian Americans who are married, and eventually, he hopes, could lead down the road to a federal rights - constitutional right for gay marriage. And Audie, in recent weeks and months, he's been talking a lot about the need for sentencing reform - the need to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders in particular. That's an effort he intends to carry through for some time.
CORNISH: What are some of the on-going controversies that he's going to leave behind to the next Attorney General?
JOHNSON: Sure, so many of those focus on national security issues. They're not at the front of mind right now, Audie, but the Justice Department's role in blessing the use of weaponized drones against American citizens overseas has been a major issue in terms of legal debates and whether those folks overseas get due process before the American government decides to kill them is a relatively major issue and legacy he leaves as well. And of course, Audie, he very much had wanted along with the President, to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That still has not happened.
CORNISH: Finally, Carrie, what do we know about when Eric Holder will leave, what he'll do next.
JOHNSON: Sure, so he intends to leave after the Senate confirms his successor, which may be next year or later this year depending on how quickly the president nominates and the Senate confirms. I'm told that it would not be surprising for him to return to private law practice at the firm Covington and Burling. He also wants to work on civil rights issues and issues involving law enforcement and their treatment of minority communities.
CORNISH: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson with the news about Attorney General Eric Holder about to announce his resignation. Carrie, thanks so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.