He's not a Bush loyalist or a Washington insider, but it's precisely those qualities that helped catapult former federal Judge Michael Mukasey to President Bush's pick for the next attorney general.
Though Mukasey's independence may lead to a less bruising confirmation fight, he is hardly on the opposite page when it comes to some of the Bush administration's most important terrorism policies, which Bush highlighted during his announcement today.
"He knows what it takes to fight this war effectively, and he knows how to do it in a manner that's consistent with our laws and our Constitution," Bush said.
Mukasey's nomination comes after Democrats shot down rumors that former Solicitor General Theodore Olson would be the replacement for outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Already, the 66-year-old Mukasey has received praise (from the former head of People for the American Way, Ralph Neas, and Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat), indicating that Bush was weary of starting another fight with the Democratic Congress.
Mukasey's confirmation could still face some roadblocks. Social conservatives seem concerned about his track record. He also lacks the deep managerial experience that some suggest is important to restoring order within the Justice Department. What's more, Democrats could stall the confirmation by pushing White House officials to turn over documents related to a series of congressional probes.
It's clear that Mukasey is hardly the close confidant of the president that Gonzales once was.
Mukasey began his career as a Manhattan assistant district attorney and worked in private practice until his nomination to the federal bench in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan. During his time on the bench in the Southern District of New York, Mukasey, who eventually became chief judge before stepping down last year, was best known for his work on national security cases.
During the mid-1990s, he presided over the trial of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who received a life sentence for a plot to blow up buildings in New York. Mukasey was praised for his management during the trial, but the case took a personal toll: Because of threats to his security, Mukasey received around-the-clock protection.
Mukasey was also an avid supporter of the Patriot Act, once writing in a Wall Street Journal article that key provisions allowing intelligence sharing—or even the review of library records—could be crucial to fighting terrorism.
And he was the judge who allowed the Bush administration to indefinitely hold Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, as an enemy combatant.
But he also pushed back against prosecutors, forcing them to allow Padilla a lawyer. That ruling began a treacherous legal odyssey for Padilla in which his determination as an enemy combatant was eventually overturned. Writing last month in the Journal after Padilla's conviction in a Miami federal court, Mukasey argued that "this case shows why current institutions and statutes are not well suited to even the limited task of supplementing what became, after Sept. 11, 2001, principally a military effort to combat Islamic terrorism."
That's an issue he would likely hope to address as attorney general. But when Mukasey spoke about his nomination today, he emphasized that as attorney general his job would go beyond combating terrorism. No doubt, that's what the Justice Department's lawyers are hoping.