correction: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that Geoffrey Berman and Ed McNally have been nominated for U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of New York, respectively. Berman and McNally are reportedly being considered for the posts but have not been nominated. This version has been corrected.
President Trump's disdain for quality in the federal judiciary ran into a roadblock last week in Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), but not before the depth of the contempt was revealed. Only a president who disrespects the federal bench would send to the Senate a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia who was embarrassingly unprepared for the job. Trump's pick, Matthew Petersen, was unable to answer questions about the courtroom process, had little familiarity with federal trial rules, and had never prosecuted or defended a case.
Petersen's disastrous nomination was put on display in a viral video — it attracted more than 8 million views — posted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Out of respect for Petersen's tender sensibilities, details of his grilling by Kennedy in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing won't be repeated in this space.
There's less concern, however, for Trump's sentiments, since he is obviously indifferent to anything critical about him in the media. He deserves continued attention. The federal justice system holds sway in Washington.
It goes without saying: Petersen's collapse (he withdrew from consideration) and the White House's retreat on two other critically flawed federal district court nominees, Jeff Mateer and Brett Talley, could have been avoided had the White House followed past procedures for picking federal judges in the District.
Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton extended senatorial courtesy to the District's congressional representative — Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — in connection with the appointment of federal district court judges and other federal law enforcement officials in the District. Norton, in turn, formed a Federal Law Enforcement Nominating Commission, headed by Pauline Schneider, former chair of the D.C. Bar, and composed of 15 other lawyers and community leaders to advise her on recommendations to the White House. Yes, Norton and the two presidents are Democrats. But the D.C. selection process was governed less by partisanship and more by merit — a consideration regrettably missing in the Trump administration's approach.
Should the failures of Petersen, Mateer and Talley get chalked up simply to poor vetting? Petersen, no litigation experience; Talley, weak on trial experience but strong on the defense of the early Ku Klux Klan; and Mateer, believer in transgender children being proof of "Satan's plan." Did they just slip through the screening process?
But what about a president who ducks responsibility for the people he chooses for the federal judiciary? Where's the accountability?
Petersen, Mateer and Talley weren't self-nominated. Their names weren't sent to the Senate by conservative interest groups.
They were all the president's men.
Except when stuff hit the fan.
Get this: After Kennedy's cutdown of Petersen lit up the airwaves, Trump called the senator with an attaboy.
In an interview with New Orleans's WWL-TV, Kennedy said Trump told him, "Kennedy, when some of my guys send somebody over who's not qualified, you do your job." Speaking of Kennedy's rejection of Petersen, Trump said, "Kennedy, I think you're right."
Wait. Trump's "guys" didn't send diddly squat. Trump signed off on their nominations. The submissions bore his name.
Going bail for Trump, Kennedy told the station, "He doesn't interview these guys. He has a staff do it."
Guess that would be it, except, except . . .
This is a city where the federal justice system holds sway. A key player: the largest federal prosecutor's office in the country, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
Trump's conduct with respect to federal prosecutorial candidates becomes curiouser and curiouser.
We're told Trump doesn't speak to district-court-level candidates: too many; they don't interest him personally.
Well, there are also scads of U.S. attorneys. A president personally interviewing presidentially appointed U.S. attorney candidates is unheard of — not only because of the size of the candidate pool but also, more importantly, because presidents traditionally keep prospective U.S. attorney nominees at arm's length to maintain the independence of federal prosecutors.
That is, until Trump came along.
Breaching that long-standing principle and practice, Trump made a point of personally interviewing three U.S. attorney candidates: Geoffrey Berman, Ed McNally and Jessie Liu.
Guess what? Berman has been considered for U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, McNally for Eastern District of New York and Liu for U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
The Senate has confirmed Liu.
Significantly, all three would be assigned to prosecutorial jurisdictions that cover Trump's central business dealings in New York and his actions in Washington.
So, reader, what do we have? Trump, the too-busy president who has no interest in federal justice candidates who are too low on the totem pole for his attention? Or Trump, who breaches protocol and drills down on future federal prosecutors in New York and Washington who might come into conflict with his interests? Any question which 'tis, in a president whose contempt for the integrity of government seems to know no bounds?
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