WASHINGTON – President Bush nominated Michael Mukasey on Monday to be the next attorney general, calling the retired federal district judge a candidate with strong credentials in national security and fairness.
"As the nation's chief law enforcement officer, the attorney general has an especially vital role to play in a time of war ... when we face the challenge of protecting our people on a daily basis from deadly enemies while at the same time protecting our freedom," Bush said in the announcement made from the White House Rose Garden.
"Judge Mukasey brings impressive credentials to this task," he said.
Bush pointed to Mukasey's 18 years of service on the federal bench at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, where he earned a "reputation as a tough but fair judge."
Bush said Mukasey's oversight of the the high-profile case against the plotters of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center is a prime example of his understanding of national security problems.
"This was one of the most important terrorism cases in our nation's history," Bush said, adding that the appeals court that upheld his decision took special note to mention his "outstanding achievement in the face of challenges far beyond those normally endured by a trial judge."
"He knows what it takes to fight this war effectively, and he knows how to do it in a manner that is consistent with our laws and our Constitution," Bush said, urging the Senate to confirm Mukasey quickly.
Mukasey, appearing with Bush, told reporters he was "deeply honored" to be selected and to be heading back to the Justice Department, where he once worked as a federal prosecutor.
"The department faces challenges vastly different from those it faced when I was an assistant U.S. attorney 35 years ago. But the principles that guide the department remain the same," Mukasey said. "To pursue justice by enforcing the law, with unswerving fidelity to the Constitution."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — who last week effectively killed the nomination of former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson — issued a statement indicating that Senate Democrats will be receptive to Mukasey.
"I’m glad President Bush listened to Congress and put aside his plan to replace Alberto Gonzales with another partisan administration insider. Judge Mukasey has strong professional credentials and a reputation for independence," Reid said. "A man who spent 18 years on the federal bench surely understands the importance of checks and balances and knows how to say no to the President when he oversteps the Constitution."
Reid, however, said, "There should be no rush to judgment" and promised a "full airing of the issues presented by this nomination" in the upcoming confirmation hearings, which will land first in the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., also said Mukasey is confirmable.
"By most accounts, Judge Michael Mukasey appears to have the qualities we need in an attorney general. People who know Judge Mukasey from his time on the federal bench say he has the intellect, the independence and the experience that we sorely need at the Justice Department," Conrad said.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' last day on the job was Friday. Monday, Bush announced that Paul Clement, who was initially named to be acting attorney general while a nominee was vetted, would immediately return to his full-time duties as solicitor general to deal with the upcoming Supreme Court calendar. Bush said Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler will serve as acting attorney general until Mukasey is confirmed.
The naming of Mukasey, 66, is likely to prevent a sticky confirmation fight in the Senate, though Leahy said Monday that several Justice Department issues still under investigation will not be dropped.
"The next attorney general needs to be someone who can begin the process of restoring the Department of Justice to its proper mission. I am hopeful that once we obtain the information we need and we have had the opportunity to consider the nomination, we will be able to make progress in this regard," he said in a statement.
If Mukasey gets the Senate nod, he will take charge of a Justice Department where morale is low following months of investigations into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and Gonzales' sworn testimony on the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Mukasey will begin making courtesy calls on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, and the White House hopes he will be confirmed by Oct. 8. She added that the administration is hoping the process goes smoothly.
"It's not the president who's looking for a fight. Senate Democrats have made the Department of Justice their cause celebre over past months. If they decide to make issue about this nomination, it will be at their feet, they'll have to explain to the American people," she said. 'We're not looking for a fight, I'd be surprised if the Senate is either."
Mukasey was nominated to the bench in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and served until his retirement in September 2006, becoming the top judge in the Manhattan federal court.
He presided over the 1995 New York City terror trial of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 co-defendants, who were convicted and received lengthy jail terms for their roles in the first World Trade Center bombing.
In the 1996 sentencing of co-conspirators in the case, Mukasey accused the sheik of trying to spread death "in a scale unseen in this country since the Civil War." He then sentenced the blind sheik to life.
More recently, he appointed a lawyer to Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2002 on a supposed mission to detonate a "dirty bomb."
Before the hearing on whether there was sufficient cause to detain Padilla, Bush declared him an enemy combatant. That began a years-long legal ordeal that ended with Padilla back in a different federal court, where he was convicted last month of murder conspiracy.
Since entering private life, Mukasey has become an adviser to Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. He would sever those ties if confirmed, the White House said.
He also returned to a partnership at the New York law firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in September 2006, a firm he first joined in 1976 after serving as assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division of the Southern District under Giuliani, and where he rose to head its official corruption unit.
"I would say he's a sort of hard — a tough-minded conservative judge who will be a strong attorney general, not a movement conservative. I don't think he'll get into social issues, that sort of thing. Those Bush policies are already in place," said FOX News contributor and Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol.
"I think the best thing about him, from a conservative point of view, is he will be an extremely effective witness before Congress when FISA, the eavesdropping program, comes up for reauthorization, as it will in a few months. On all War on Terror issues, he will be to War on Terror issues what (Gen. David) Petraeus is, I think, to military issues, an independent, well-respected person who's pretty much in agreement with the president's policies," he continued.
Right off the bat, Mukasey appeared to be winning widespread acceptance. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the moderate ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the candidate appears to meet all the requirements of Democrats.
"I met with the judge the morning, talked to him about the process and about his own background. He comes to the nomination with excellent academic and professional qualifications," he said, adding that he hopes the nominee doesn't get bogged down by the political bickering in Congress over Justice Department conduct.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York also repeated an earlier vote of confidence in the judge, calling him "better than any of the names" that have been floated by the White Hosue recently.
"Judge Mukasey is not a crony of the president, he is not a White House insider. That's a good sign," Schumer said, adding that the nominee has a reputation of someone with integrity who puts the law first.
"That is the most important thing right now," he said.
Before the nomination, several conservatives had said they were concerned about any candidate who would be suitable to the liberal Schumer. But in a series of conference calls Sunday, conservative groups decided not to oppose Mukasey's nomination. Potential conservative opponents had been assured that Mukasey would play no role, or a very limited one, in filling any Supreme Court vacancy.
Conservative groups also decided Bush had no political capital left to fight for anyone but a Democratic-approved nominee. As a result, Mukasey is off to a good start and won't have to endure the same criticism that accompanied the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, Bush's former White House counsel.
After the nomination, the Republican National Committee offered its endorsement of the candidate.
"He is exactly the kind of highly-regarded, widely respected person that the president promised he would nominate. Now, the Democrats must fulfill their own promise to give him a swift and fair hearing and vote on the floor of the Senate," said RNC chairmen Mike Duncan and Mel Martinez said in a joint statement.
Perino said that the search process for a new attorney general was deliberate and the president took time to make a careful, unrushed decision. Bush offered the job to Mukasey on Friday after a search was led by Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and White House counsel Fred Fielding. The president also took recommendations from members of Congress and other government officials. Senators from both sides of the aisle apparently mentioned Mukasey to Bolten and Fielding, Perino said.
Mukasey visited the White House on Saturday, Sept. 1, after which the search team met with Bush following his return from the APEC conference in Australia. Perino said Mukasey's legal experience, leadership qualities and understanding of threats against the country put him at the top of the list.
Mukasey is set to replace Gonzales, whose last day as attorney general was Friday. Gonzales quit after 2-1/2 years at the Justice Department amid investigations into whether he broke the law and lied to Congress. He has denied any wrongdoing, and has been defended throughout by Bush, his mentor and longtime friend.
FOX News' Mike Emanuel, Major Garrett and Daniela Sicuranza and The Associated Press contributed to this report.