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A Trump judicial nominee who could not answer basic legal questions in a hearing last week has withdrawn his nomination, but this is likely to happen again unless the Administration fixes some obvious flaws in its selection process.

Trump Gavel

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the source of controversy after video of his awkward appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee went viral, has withdrawn his name from consideration for a position on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:

Matthew Petersen, a nominee to the federal judiciary, has withdrawn from consideration days after a video clip showed him unable to answer basic questions about legal procedure, the White House confirmed Monday.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.”

— 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.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Every month Trump is in office adds to the long term damage. Sure, this nominee got stopped, but how many truly incompetent buffoons are now burrowing into government positions simply because they chanted “lock her up!” within Trump’s hearing. We will be dealing with the aftermath in all governmental branches for years. My sister, a teacher, used to speak disparagingly of the “Viet Nam” guys, men who became teachers during that era simply to avoid the draft and then stayed in despite the fact they hated teaching and despised their students, when in reality they were just no good at it. They felt they were better than everyone and if only they were given real authority they would show everyone how it was done and take down all the people who looked down on them. My sister felt these guys poisoned the field for a couple of decades or more. Trump is posting the equivalent into every organization in the government – people who will grow bitter as they are despised by their peers for their incompetence, but who lack any real talent or motivation to give up their benefits and get a job more suited to them.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    Who could have guessed that these incompetent dolts slithering out of Don McGahn’s grab bag would make Harriet Miers look very impressive by comparison…

  3. Guarneri says:

    “Who could have guessed that these incompetent dolts slithering out of Don McGahn’s grab bag would make Harriet Miers look very impressive by comparison.”

    Anyone who believes Loretta Lynch talked to Bill Clinton about golf and grandchildren…………

  4. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri: Have you ever been near a grandparent? You can not get them to shut up about those slithering larva that their spawn have squeezed out.

    Even if they had some nefarious plan they wanted to discuss is would all be about babies vomiting in something.

    Makes me sick.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Guarneri: Anyone who believed trump was going to help them is either rich or an idiot. You ain’t rich.

  6. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: Somebody, your sister for example, should write about this. I don’t know if there’s a book, but an article or 5 might turn out to be instructive to social science and education. I’d not thought about what she noted, but just the comment itself adds to my train of thought on what went on in education during the watch of my generation. It would be interesting to know, for example, if the phenomenon she notes was nationwide or more regional, how it affected the education of the poor, minorities, “don’t wanna be here”s in a era when education was becoming–for better or worse–the pass point to a future of compensatory employment, among other questions. Interesting idea. I’m not sure I’ve seen the phenomenon. Maybe it explains some of the administrators I’ve met.

  7. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: You imagine that anyone who doesn’t have to talks to Guarneri? Really?

  8. Franklin says:

    @MarkedMan: Interesting, I didn’t even know people could get draft deferments for being a teacher.

  9. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    i don’t know why this guy dropped out…he is not any more incompetent than Denture-Donnie is.
    We live in upside-down world. Draining the swamp means filling it with lobbyists and cronies and family members.
    Middle class tax cuts got to corporations and the wealthiest.
    Beautiful health care for everyone means 13 million people lose their insurance and everyone’s rates go up.
    And “the best people” means the most incompetent people.
    Welcome to Trumpistan…the planets newest banana republic.

  10. Mister Bluster says:

    Fuk the Draft! Fuk the War! Bring the Boys Home!
    As I recall, early on during the Vietnam “conflict”, Selective Service exempted married men. As the war continued the exemption was limited to married men with children. It wasn’t long before this ended.
    Deferments for High School* and College existed but after graduation male citizens were still obligated to serve.
    Seems like I remember guys joining the Peace Corp to avoid service.
    I don’t remember teaching as a way out of the draft but that doesn’t mean some sort of exemption for that profession did not exist.
    (*All males had to register for Selective Service at age 18. Forget the fact that you couldn’t vote the bastards out of office who were forcing you to do this until you were 21.)

    We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.
–Lyndon Johnson, Oct. 1964
    Lyndon Johnson assumed the United States Presidency on Nov. 22, 1963 the day President John Kennedy was assassinated.

    That same year 122 American Soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War.

    In 1964, 216 American Soldiers were killed.
In 1965, 1928 American Soldiers were killed.
In 1966, 6350 American Solders were killed.
In 1967, 11,363 American Solders were killed.
In 1968, the last full year of Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency,
16,899 American Soldiers were killed. 1400 a month.

    RIP…You too Lyndon…