WASHINGTON — A Trump judicial nominee who came under withering criticism after a grilling last week from Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana has withdrawn his nomination, the third district court nominee to step aside in the past week after questions raised by the Louisiana senator.
Matthew S. Petersen, a current member of Federal Elections Commission and a Trump pick to for a lifetime federal district court judgeship in D.C., bowed out Monday, a White House official confirmed to The Advocate.
Kennedy, who’d highlighted Petersen’s dearth of courtroom experience and apparent ignorance of basic legal terms during a confirmation hearing before the Senate's Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, said he personally felt bad for Petersen but that stepping aside was the “right thing to do.”
Kennedy has built a reputation on Capitol Hill as one of the Judiciary Committee’s toughest questioners and the most outspoken Republican critic of a handful of the Trump administration judicial picks.
Kennedy said Trump called him Friday to discuss the senator’s withering questioning of Petersen. The president didn’t take offense and appeared to agree that Petersen’s qualifications fell short, said Kennedy, who added that the president’s staff — and not the president himself — vet potential nominees for judgeships below the U.S. Supreme Court.
“(Trump) said, ‘Look, Kennedy, do your job. I’m not upset or angry,’” said Kennedy. "I think he’d just seen the video. And he said ‘I’m not going to criticize you for doing what’s right.’"
Video of Kennedy quizzing Petersen on a handful of basic legal terms after the nominee acknowledged having never tried a case or argued a motion in court went viral Thursday evening after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, tweeted it along with ridicule of Petersen.
"Hoo-boy," Whitehouse wrote in the tweet.
A White House spokesman appeared to initially criticize Kennedy for the grilling after the video was posted, telling CNN, "it is no surprise the President’s opponents keep trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations."
In an interview Monday morning with WWL-TV in New Orleans, Kennedy said he’d “strongly suggest” Petersen — who hadn’t yet withdrawn from consideration for the post — “not give up his day job.”
“Just because you’ve seen 'My Cousin Vinny' doesn’t qualify you to be a federal judge,” Kennedy told the television station. “He has no litigation experience and my job on the judiciary committee is to catch him.”
A number of lawyers and legal scholars expressed shock at Petersen's fumbling answers, with a Tulane University law professor telling The Advocate he was "shocked and appalled" that a nominee for a federal judgeship couldn't answer some of Kennedy's questions.
Kennedy said the Trump administration has “a very high batting average” on selecting quality nominees for judgeships, noting he’s voted for the vast majority of them.
But the senator has criticized a handful of other White House picks beside Petersen, calling one nominee for a federal judgeship in Alabama "embarrassing,” and Kennedy has clashed publicly with White House counsel Don McGahn, the Trump administration official tasked with vetting potential judges.
Petersen and McGahn worked together at the Federal Elections Commission from 2008 until 2013.
After voting against the confirmation of McGahn's White House deputy, Gregory Katsas, for a seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Kennedy said raising concerns with McGahn was "like talking to the wind."
Trump was getting "very, very bad advice" on judicial nominations, Kennedy added at the time.
Kennedy said Katsas' work as a lawyer for Trump presented a serious potential conflict of interest because the D.C. Circuit regularly considers cases involving the White House. The Senate confirmed Katsas despite Kennedy's "no" vote.
At a confirmation hearing for Kyle Duncan, a nominee for a Louisiana seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Kennedy said McGahn's office never meaningfully consulted with him about the nomination despite a long-standing tradition that the White House discuss potential picks with home-state senators.
“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 at Duncan's hearing. “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.”
Brett Talley, the failed nominee for a federal judgeship in Alabama whom Kennedy had threatened to vote against "in a heartbeat," also has close ties to McGahn.
Talley's wife, Ann Donaldson, serves as McGahn's chief of staff. Kennedy said Talley never disclosed that fact to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Now I understand there’s a little cabal of people up here and they have their favorites and that’s who they want," Kennedy said after voting against Katsas, "but my job is to try to represent all the people of my state and pick the right person."
Kennedy praised Duncan’s resume and announced his support for Duncan, a star litigator in social conservative circles, shortly after the late-November confirmation hearing. But Kennedy opened the hearing by saying he hoped Duncan would prove “he’s the second coming of Justice Holmes or Justice Scalia — and not the second-cousin of somebody who is politically connected in the Washington swamp.”
Kennedy shied away from criticizing McGahn’s office on Monday evening, saying he wasn’t sure how the White House is selecting nominees and vetting their backgrounds.
“I’m a freshman senator — the closest I get to the White House is a tour so I don’t know how it works over there,” Kennedy said. “All I see is the final product.”