Trump Judicial Nominee Caught Unprepared By Viral Video Withdraws Nomination
A Trump judicial nominee who could not answer basic legal questions in a hearing last week has withdrawn his nomination, but this is likely to happen again unless the Administration fixes some obvious flaws in its selection process.
Matthew Peterson, a former Federal Election Commission official who quickly became the source of controversy after video of his awkward appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee went viral, has withdrawn his name from consideration for a position on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:
Matthew Petersen, a nominee to the federal judiciary, has withdrawn from consideration days after a video clip showed him unable to answer basic questions about legal procedure, the White House confirmed Monday.
Petersen, nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is the third Trump judicial pick to withdraw in the past week amid criticism from Democrats and others about their qualifications.
White House spokesman Raj Shah confirmed that Trump had accepted Petersen’s withdrawal but declined to comment further.
The video of Petersen that went viral Thursday captured five minutes of brutal questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) at Petersen’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee the day before.
It was posted on Twitter by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who wrote that it showed Kennedy asking Petersen “basic questions of law & he can’t answer a single one.”
As of Friday, the White House was standing by Petersen, with a spokesman saying that he was qualified and that “the President’s opponents” were “trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations.”
Petersen, a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, has been a member of the Federal Election Commission since 2008 but has no trial experience. His tenure on the FEC overlapped with that of now-White House counsel Don McGahn for about five years.
“While I am honored to have been nominated for this position, it has become clear to me over the past few days that my nomination has become a distraction — and that is not fair to you or your Administration,” Petersen wrote to Trump in a letter dated Saturday. “I had hoped my nearly two decades of public service might carry more weight than my two worst minutes on television. However, I am no stranger to political realities, and I do not wish to be a continued distraction from the important work of your administration and the Senate.”
Until last week, Trump’s record of getting judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate stood out as a bright spot for a president who has struggled for big wins on Capitol Hill. The Senate has confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, 12 circuit court judges and six district court judges.
Early last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told the White House to “reconsider” the nominations of two nominees, Jeff Mateer and Brett Talley, both of whom were reported to have endorsed positions or groups that embrace discrimination. A day later, both nominations were pulled.
Democratic senators had also questioned the qualifications of Talley, Trump’s nominee for a U.S. district court seat in Alabama, and Mateer, who was nominated to serve on the bench in the Eastern District of Texas.
Here’s Peterson’s letter:
Matthew Petersen’s withdrawal letter mentions his “two worst minutes” on TV… adds he is no “stranger to political realities.” pic.twitter.com/eaywecTuoO
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) December 18, 2017
Peterson’s decision was, in all likelihood, not entirely voluntarily. After last week’s hearing, and especially in light of the fact that the video was shared far and wide across social media and replayed repeatedly on cable news, the fate of his nomination was essentially set in stone. The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, had already warned the Administration that two of their nominees would not be reported out favorably by the committee, a move that would have essentially doomed their nominations on the Senate floor and it’s likely that the same thing would have happened to Peterson had his nomination proceeded forward. In response to Grassley’s initial comments, the two nominees that he was referring to were withdrawn from consideration rather than voted on. Given that, it’s likely that the same fate would have awaited Peterson if he had not withdrawn his name on his own, and it’s likely that his decision to do so came after conversations with the White House over the weekend that made it clear he would probably receive a similar fate.
As I noted in my post over the weekend, Peterson is no doubt well-qualified in the area of law that he has specialized in for the past twenty years or so, but that doesn’t make him qualified or prepared for a lifetime position on the Federal Bench. In his case, it seems likely that his name ended up being submitted largely based on the recommendation of Trump’s White House Counsel Don McGann, who was on the FEC at the same time as Peterson and has played a lead role in putting together Trump’s judicial nominees. As I said on Saturday, though, being qualified or even highly qualified in one area of the law doesn’t make one automatically qualified to be a Federal Judge at any level, and not being familiar with trial procedure or Federal laws and rules regarding evidence and procedure is simply inexcusable for someone who would be serving primarily as a trial court judge.
If nothing else, this does seem to indicate that there are some serious problems with the Administration’s judicial nomination procedures. Chief among these appears to be the decision to not work together with the American Bar Association in engaging in what essentially involves pre-screening of nominees before they are publicly named. This is something that previous Administrations had done as a matter of course going back decades, and while the Presidents involved didn’t always choose to follow the recommendations of the ABA, the process did often result in a winnowing process that weeded out the obviously unprepared nominees such as Peterson. If they continue with this practice, then it’s going to become even more common that Trump nominees will face rough times and scrutiny even from Senate Republicans, and that means we can look forward to more cringe-worthy viral videos.