The nomination of Loretta Lynch as the next attorney general of the United States perhaps displays as much presidential deftness as it does defiance. Clearly, in the wake of last week’s election, President Barack Obama wants to show some. And while some observers assume that Lynch will have a relatively straightforward Senate confirmation, since she’s perceived as less of an “Obama inner circle” pick than her predecessor, in fact, her ascension is quite deliberate. There’s an argument here, given the president’s penchant for sacrificing first-round picks as shrewdly as Kevin Costner’s character in Draft Day, that maybe she’s exactly who Obama wanted in the first place.
Her apolitical distance from the White House may be a way to momentarily muffle the reservations of begrudging Senate Republicans. But at the same time, Lynch’s Harvard pedigree suggests a true-to-form Obama preference for black Ivy League elites to form his front line. And it’s hard to miss the symbolism, with Lynch—the skilled, tough-as-nails sister lawyer—rushing in to save the brother from lame-duck collapse.
Plus, the president may be regretful that he stirred the coffee of his Cabinet with too much cream in the first six years and now wants to lean “too black, too strong” in his last two. And why not? He’s now got little to lose. In the immediate wake of outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation, Lynch barely made a footnote among those postulating about his potential replacement. But the hint that the Rev. Al Sharpton may have had a leading hand in elevating Lynch to top-contender status makes sense.
It definitely makes her particular selection somewhat fascinating, and much more than just another Black History Month encyclopedia entry. There is a certain whiff of last stand to it, a saddling up for especially rough-and-tumble days ahead. Holder was useful, but he was the bishop in the chess game, always moving in noisy diagonals. If you’re this president, your attorney general must be the queen on the board, able to block, maneuver and slay dragons when the need arises.
Cut from North Carolina cloth but trained on Brooklyn, N.Y., blocks is just that.
And with whispers that Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson will escape both local grand jury indictment and federal civil rights charges for Michael Brown’s death, Lynch’s arrival—if managed properly—is what the doctor orders. Serving point on the conviction of several New York City police officers for the grisly 1997 sexual assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and its subsequent cover-up, Lynch’s litigation technique put the main assailant behind bars for 30 years.
Just before her name bubbled to the surface of potential attorney general picks, Lynch was huddling with the family of the tragically choked Staten Island, N.Y., man, Eric Garner, steeling for another showdown with the nation’s largest city police force over fresh brutality allegations (this time captured on video). At a time when the black body politic has soured ever so slightly on its first black president, appointing Lynch could help him regain its full trust before the grand exit in 2017.
She’s fearless. She’s thrown terrorist operatives under the jail, and she’s been quietly building a robust national cybercrime shop in an age of increased hacking and big retailer breaches. Obama’s future deployment of her skill sets should worry adversaries who will, predictably, dismiss the black woman in charge at Justice. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin still giving you geopolitical headaches? Obama now has a Lynch for that, her elevated role in Washington giving her extra firepower in her ongoing oil-trading and money-laundering investigation of Putin ally Gennady Timchenko.
Need to keep those multibillion-dollar, postrecession big-bank fines flowing in to federal coffers? One of the Big Apple’s top prosecutors has been Holder’s secret weapon in squeezing historic penalties out of banks like Citigroup ($7 billion settlement) and HSBC ($1.2 billion) over seedy mortgages and money laundering. And Wall Street gets a bat signal over Gotham while Capitol Hill gets the notice letter: It’s Lynch who is patiently hunting down the just re-elected Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), a former FBI agent indicted on 20 counts of tax fraud, perjury and obstruction of justice.
She “will receive a very fair, but thorough, vetting,” said the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “I’m hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the attorney general as a politically independent voice for the American people.”
Grassley, along with other Senate Republicans, can only tread cautiously on this pick; many are already aware that any tie-ups in her nomination will look too brazenly racist and politically obtuse. This time, Obama haters can’t go there with the accusation that he typically picks his political buddies. Lynch is conveniently untainted by the proverbial backroom plays of cigar-chomping pols. That’s never been her thing. But her record suggests that it may serve the president’s political and policy aims quite well in the closing act.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.