Last week, one of President Donald Trump’s nominees to a lifetime district court position struggled to answer simple questions about legal and courtroom terms during his confirmation hearing, in a video that soon went viral.
And on Monday, that nominee, Matthew Petersen, sent a letter withdrawing his name from consideration for the position. “My nomination has become a distraction — and that is not fair to you or your Administration,” Petersen wrote in a letter posted by the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein.
In the video, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) quizzed Petersen, whom Trump nominated to serve as a federal judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia, on his experience with and knowledge of courtroom procedure — and Petersen appeared not to have very much of either. The clip, posted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), is positively painful to watch:
Now, if you’re wondering how Petersen ended up with an appointment to a prestigious lifetime judgeship, it’s probably not a coincidence that he and White House counsel Don McGahn — President Trump’s top staffer overseeing judicial nominations — worked together for several years.
Since 2008, Petersen has served on the Federal Election Commission — the highly partisan body in charge of enforcing federal campaign finance law, which has been much maligned for its toothlessness and dysfunction.
The FEC has three Republican commissioners at any given time — and people are chosen for those jobs because they’re expected to protect the GOP’s interests. From 2008 to 2013, Petersen and McGahn were two of those commissioners. They worked together to weaken enforcement of campaign finance laws, and to try to prevent “dark money” outside groups spending big on elections from being reined in.
More broadly, this isn’t the first time that questions have been raised about whether McGahn has given his or his associates’ connections the inside track to judgeships, even though they were unqualified.
Brett Talley, whom Trump nominated for a district judgeship in Alabama, faced similar questions about his qualifications (he’d never tried a case and had only practiced law for three years). Then it turned out that Talley was married to McGahn’s chief of staff in the White House counsel’s office — a fact he didn’t initially disclose to Congress.
At the end of the video, Sen. Kennedy asks the nominees if “any of you ever blogged in support of the Ku Klux Klan?” That’s a reference to Talley, too — Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern found that Talley appeared to have written a message board post defending “the first KKK,” dubiously asserting that the group only “turned to racial violence” much later on.
Talley has since withdrawn his name from consideration — and now, Petersen has done the same.
Kennedy has been complaining that something weird is going on with Trump’s judicial nominees
The broader context here is that this is the first year since 2006 in which the GOP has controlled both the presidency and the Senate, and they’re not sure how long that situation will last. So conservatives are eager to ram through as many judicial confirmations as they can in this window of opportunity. (Again, if confirmed, these nominees can serve in their posts for life.)
But in recent weeks, Sen. Kennedy — a Republican from Louisiana who just joined the Senate at the beginning of this year, and who serves on the Judiciary Committee — has begun to express concerns about some of the nominees and how they were chosen.
Kennedy had voted to move Talley through the committee, and was shocked to learn afterward about his connection to the White House. So he helped kill the nomination by announcing, in late November, that he’d vote against Talley on the Senate floor “in a heartbeat” — and suggested that he was concerned with the advice Trump was getting on judicial nominees.
“He’s never tried a lawsuit in his natural life. And he’s gonna be on the federal bench? Give me a break. A break. It is embarrassing,” Kennedy told reporters, per Politico. “And I think the president of the United States is getting some very, very bad advice.”
Kennedy also became the first Republican senator to vote against a Trump nominee on the Senate floor when he voted against confirming Gregory Katsas to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, saying Katsas had a conflict because he worked for McGahn’s White House Counsel’s Office. (Katsas was confirmed anyway.)
And in another case, Kennedy called out McGahn specifically for not consulting him on the nomination of Kyle Duncan to a Louisiana seat on the Fifth Circuit court of appeals.
“I first learned about Mr. Duncan’s nomination when I received a phone call — actually a series of phone calls — from Mr. Don McGahn,” Kennedy said, according to the Acadiana Advocate. “Mr. McGahn was very firm that Mr. Duncan would be the nominee — to the point that he was on the scarce side, in one conversation, of being polite.”
Now, with his questioning of Petersen, Kennedy has caused more trouble for a nominee who appears to be close to Don McGahn.
But if Kennedy is to believed, Trump himself doesn’t seem to mind all that much. The senator told WWL-TV that Trump called him this weekend to discuss the matter. And per Kennedy, Trump said, “When some of my guys send someone who is not qualified, you do your job.”