Trump raises new questions with outreach to US Attorney nominees

A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

For those who enjoy following White House scandals, Donald Trump's presidency has been a treasure trove, to the point that it's challenging at times to keep up. It's quite common for the president and his team to face legitimate controversies, which would ordinarily jolt a normal administration, that soon fade from the headlines to make room for a new controversy.

For example, I've long been fascinated by Trump's decision in the spring to summarily fire 46 U.S. Attorneys, without warning or explanation, with each of these federal prosecutors told on a Friday afternoon to submit their resignations and clean out their offices before close of business. One of the U.S. Attorneys, who'd specifically been told he could stay on, was among the prosecutors sent packing.

At the time, the president and his team didn't have any replacement U.S. Attorneys lined up. The White House just wanted nearly four dozen prosecutors to leave their jobs immediately.

The questions grew a little louder three months ago, when Trump reportedly had a private meeting with a prospective U.S. Attorney, D.C.'s Jessie Liu, before her nomination was made official.

Politico  reported yesterday that this wasn't an isolated incident.

President Donald Trump has personally interviewed at least two potential candidates for U.S. attorney positions in New York, according to two sources familiar with the matter — a move that critics say raises questions about whether they can be sufficiently independent from the president.Trump has interviewed Geoffrey Berman, who is currently at the law firm Greenberg Traurig for the job of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Ed McNally of the firm Kasowitz Benson Torres for the Eastern District post, according to the sources.

The presidential chat with Geoffrey Berman is of particular interest because the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York will have jurisdiction over Trump Tower. The person who used to have this job, Preet Bharara, is the same U.S. Attorney who was fired in March despite having been told he could remain at his post.

"It is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates for US Attorney positions, especially the one in Manhattan," Bharara tweeted Wednesday.

For those of us outside the legal world, these developments may seem obscure, but U.S. Attorneys are a powerful group of lawyers, who have considerable influence over federal prosecutions nationwide. The fact that Trump wants to personally meet with some of them before they're nominated is bizarre.

In his eight years in office, for example, Barack Obama met with exactly zero U.S. Attorney nominees.

A CNN report in July added that experts said these interviews "sharply depart from past practice" and are "at odds with the understood custom of insulating U.S. attorneys from political influence."

In an interview with Politico yesterday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) added that it's of particular interest that the president singled out prospective prosecutors in D.C. and New York City. "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," Blumenthal said. "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."

Under normal circumstances, this would be the sort of thing Congress would take a closer look at as part of its oversight responsibilities.