- President Donald Trump is reportedly interviewing US attorney candidates in jurisdictions that directly affect him and his businesses.
- That has left Democrats and ethics experts up in arms.
- The White House says it’s his constitutional right to do so.
Democrats and former officials in the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations are up in arms over reports that President Donald Trump personally interviewed US Attorney candidates in a trio of jurisdictions that could directly affect him.
“I never heard of a president interviewing a US attorney candidate,” Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who served as Bush’s chief ethics lawyer, told Business Insider.
Politico reported this week that Trump interviewed candidates for the Southern and Eastern District of New York, citing sources.
Trump reportedly interviewed Geoffrey Berman, who works at the same law firm as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for the vacancy in the Southern District of New York, the spot vacated by former US Attorney Preet Bharara. In the Eastern District of New York, Trump interviewed Ed McNally, who works at the law firm headed by Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s former top lawyer in handling special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“These are individuals that the president nominates and the Senate confirms under Article II of the Constitution,” a White House official told Politico. “We realize Senate Democrats would like to reduce this President’s constitutional powers. But he and other presidents before him and after may talk to individuals nominated to positions within the executive branch.”
The Southern District of New York is home to Trump Tower, the Trump Organization, and several prominent Trump properties. It was where the Trump campaign was headquartered, and where a controversial June 2016 meeting of a Russian lawyer, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort took place. Trump initially told Bharara during the transition period that he could stay on in his post, but subsequently fired him in March, along with dozens of other US attorneys.
The publication reported that documents submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year showed that Trump met with Jessie Liu, his nominee for US Attorney for the District of Columbia. That’s another spot that could have implications over a number of Trump-related prosecutorial decisions, including any findings of the Mueller probe. Liu has already been confirmed to the post.
“I understand that he’s personally interviewed the potential applicants for US attorney in Manhattan and Brooklyn and one in Washington, DC — which happen to be places where Donald Trump has property and assets and companies — and not interviewed personally US attorneys for other positions,” Bharara told CNN Wednesday. “I think that reasonably raises a number of questions.”
He later tweeted that “it is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates” for US attorney, particularly in the Southern District of New York.
Trump has not interviewed other US attorney candidates he nominated, Politico reported, citing “Democrats who have been asking that of all nominees.” US attorneys are subject to what is known as the “blue-slip” process in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which gives home state senators the power to block a nominee from moving forward in the committee. That means Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand could prevent Trump’s nominee in either of those two New York jurisdictions from getting a vote.
Trump has already nominated 40 people for vacant US attorney slots, moving quickly to fill the many voids. But he has largely avoided nominated US attorneys in states with Democratic senators such as New York.
“To be very blunt, these three jurisdictions will have authority to bring indictments over the ongoing special counsel investigation into Trump campaign collusion with the Russians and potential obstruction of justice by the president of the United States,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal told Politico. “For him to be interviewing candidates for that prosecutor who may in turn consider whether to bring indictments involving him and his administration seems to smack of political interference.”
Blumenthal mentioned the interviews during a congressional hearing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this week. Sessions said he was “not sure” whether Trump interviewed for the New York vacancies “but if you say so, I assume so.”
“And he has the right to, for sure, because he has to make an appointment, and I assume that everybody would understand that,” he continued.
Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration, said the former president “never interviewed” a US attorney candidate.
“Trump is trying to breach the DOJ wall, plain & simple,” he tweeted.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Thursday that “there’s no reason” for Trump to be meeting with candidates for those vacancies.
“The U.S. attorney for the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York — like the US attorney for Washington, DC —would have jurisdiction over many important cases, including those involving President Trump’s personal and family business interests. There’s no reason for President Trump to be meeting with candidates for these positions, which create the appearance that he may be trying to influence or elicit inappropriate commitments from potential US attorneys. US attorneys must be loyal to the Constitution — not the president.”
Painter, the ex-Bush administration lawyer who has often been critical of Trump, said that while the president “has the legal right to” interview those candidates, he called it “extremely unusual” and added that Bush never, to his knowledge, interviewed a US attorney candidate.
And “if he’s interviewing a US attorney, why is he only interviewing in these districts?” Painter told Business Insider. “That’s highly peculiar. And it suggests that he has an interest in the outcome of the US attorneys work in these districts.”
“That is very problematic, because we’re looking at a situation where he could be trying to get a promise of loyalty from a US attorney,” he added. “He’s probably not going to be stupid enough to ask, but he’s probably going to be interviewing somebody who is not going to prosecute certain cases.”
Painter said the Senate Judiciary Committee should ask any US attorney candidate that comes before the panel what the president has said to him or her, and that candidate should be testifying under oath as to what was said.
“It’s obvious what he’s trying to do,” Painter said. “He made a big deal about Bill Clinton walking on the airplane with the attorney general. Well, you know, what’s going on here?”
“You never know what happened in these interviews just like you never know what Bill Clinton said to the attorney general,” he continued, mentioning the much-maligned 2016 meeting between the former president and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “But, it doesn’t look good.”
Speaking to CNN, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch defended Trump for interviewing for those jurisdictions. But he added that it is complicated by his businesses.
“That does complicate the matter,” he said. “But he’s the president of the United States who picks these people, so he’s going to get blamed [by Democrat] no matter what he does. So I think it’s a good thing that he’s willing to interview these people.” Hatch said
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN that the interviews appear to him to be “kind of an extension of ‘The Apprentice,’ I guess.”
The left-leaning ethics organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has pending litigation involving Trump in those jurisdictions, summed up its thoughts on the interviews in three words.
“This isn’t normal,” the organization tweeted Thursday.