WASHINGTON — President Bush is preparing to nominate Michael B. Mukasey, a retired federal district court judge from New York, to succeed Alberto R. Gonzales as U.S. attorney general, people familiar with the president's thinking said late Sunday.
White House officials began on Sunday to distribute background materials on Mukasey to Republican aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee in preparation for confirmation hearings in a month or so, the staffers said.
The White House was preparing for an announcement as early as today. Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said Bush would reveal his choice "soon."
Mukasey, 66, is a former prosecutor and a respected jurist who in his 18 years on the bench presided over some of the nation's first trials arising from Islamic radicalism. Upon his retirement last year, he rejoined a prominent New York law firm as a senior partner.
In turning to Mukasey, who is largely unknown in Washington political circles, Bush is seen as hoping to avoid a protracted confirmation battle and reduce the controversies and upheaval that have engulfed the Justice Department under Gonzales over the last nine months.
Although Mukasey is considered a conservative, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of Gonzales' fiercest critics, already has suggested that he would support his fellow New Yorker for attorney general, including him in March among a handful of potential candidates for the post who would be qualified "by their reputation and careers."
In a statement Sunday night, Schumer expressed similar sentiments: "While he is certainly conservative, Judge Mukasey seems to be the kind of nominee who would put rule of law first and show independence from the White House, our most important criteria."
"He's a lot better than some of the other names mentioned, and he has the potential to become a consensus nominee," Schumer said.
Mukasey has been serving as a legal advisor to Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential campaign and is believed to have been on Giuliani's own short list of attorney general candidates if the former New York mayor wins the Republican nomination and is elected.
Rumors of his possible selection as attorney general triggered concerns among social conservatives over the weekend.
In an effort to defuse their opposition, an editorial supporting his nomination as attorney general was posted Saturday on the Weekly Standard's website. Written by William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine, the editorial described Mukasey as "first-rate" on terrorism issues, calling him "an able public spokesman because he can't be caricatured as a partisan apologist."
"He is an integrity infusion" for the Justice Department, said Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor in New York who handled a major terrorism case before Mukasey in the mid-1990s. McCarthy called Mukasey "an unquestioned authority" on national security issues.
Gonzales announced three weeks ago that he was resigning. Pressure to do so from both Democrats and Republicans had arisen from his involvement in the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys last year and from questions about his candor and integrity in testifying before Congress.
His last day was Friday. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement is serving as acting attorney general until Gonzales' successor is confirmed.
The timing of the confirmation hearings is unclear. The White House would like the Senate to move as quickly as possible, perhaps within a month or so. The departures in recent weeks of a dozen or so top aides, along with Gonzales, have left the department rudderless.
At the same time, many Democrats have chafed at the White House's refusal to turn over documents about the operation of the department under Gonzales. Aides have suggested that some lawmakers may hold up confirmation of his successor until the White House starts delivering.
Bush's choice of a nominee like Mukasey exemplifies the president's weakened political state in his last 15 months in office.
Last week, Bush appeared leaning toward nominating Theodore B. Olson, a conservative legal icon in Washington. Olson represented the Bush campaign before the Supreme Court in Bush vs. Gore, the case that gave the 2000 election to Bush, and then served as solicitor general under Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. But when his name was leaked in news reports, Democrats said they considered Olson an extreme choice and vowed they would not confirm him.
Mukasey, on the other hand, once won the backing of the Alliance for Justice, a Washington advocacy group that has been highly critical of Bush's picks for the federal bench. In 2005, the group cited Mukasey as an example of a jurist who could be supported by Democrats and Republicans if nominated to the Supreme Court.