As President Trump continues to provide nominees for vacant U.S. attorney positions around the country, Senate Democrats are on high alert over a handful of particularly sensitive openings.
In the wake of reports that Trump took the unusual step of personally interviewing candidates for high-profile U.S. attorney jobs in New York and Washington, D.C., Democrats are demanding more information on these conversations and warning the president against following similar protocol moving forward as more of these important positions open up.
As the minority party in the upper chamber, Democrats are limited in what they can do to force Trump's hand. But by upping their scrutiny during the confirmation process, they can cause yet another political headache for the administration.
"We'll have some questions," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the longest-serving member of the Judiciary Committee. Referring to Trump’s interviews with candidates, Leahy added: "I've only been here with eight presidents, but I've never known one to do that. So it does stand out as something extraordinary."
Democrats are particularly concerned about the president's involvement in the Southern District of New York, since the U.S. attorney there would handle any cases involving the Trump Organization. Trump also reportedly met with a candidate for the U.S. attorney position in New York's Eastern District, and according to Senate Judiciary Committee documents, the nominee for U.S. attorney in Washington.
In the past, presidents have avoided interviewing contenders for U.S. attorney positions themselves. Matthew Miller, who was a spokesman for the Justice Department in the last administration, has said President Obama never interviewed a U.S. attorney candidate.
Just last week, another critical U.S. attorney job opened up in Virginia's Eastern District. Dana Boente, who briefly served as acting attorney general this year, resigned after a 33-year career in the Justice Department.
This post is significant for several reasons. The Eastern District's jurisdiction includes the CIA and Defense Department, so prosecutors there often handle terrorism and intelligence cases. The U.S. attorney there is in the line of succession to head the Justice Department (which could come into play if multiple senior officials resigned or were fired). And special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly began using a grand jury there over the summer.
As the senators representing the state where the open job is located, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner could attempt to unilaterally block any nominee for moving forward via the "blue-slip" process. Asked if he would invoke that authority if he discovered Trump interviewed the candidate for the position, Kaine dismissed the question as a hypothetical, but made clear he would not let it slide if that situation occurred.
"We would certainly object if the president is trying to talk to people about pending investigations. We would find that out and we would make a lot out of it publicly," Kaine said. "There's no way they're going to be able to do that without us knowing because we're going to interview all of the candidates. We will find it out."
Jessie Liu has already been confirmed as the U.S. attorney in Washington, while Trump has yet to put forward nominees for the New York positions. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York declined to comment on the record, while the office of the state's junior Democratic senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, did not respond to requests for comment.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has been at the forefront of this matter, pressing Attorney General Jeff Sessions on it during a recent oversight hearing. Asked about the New York positions, Blumenthal said he "will block these nominations unless there's an adequate explanation for why the interview took place or what was said."
Other Democrats on the committee weren't willing to go quite as far, but said they wouldn't support a nominee that Trump interviewed.
"If that were the case, and this person was personally selected by the president in the two districts that would likely have any case that involved his business holdings, I wouldn't vote for them," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Some Democrats also raised concerns about the U.S. attorney position for the southern district of Florida, given that Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort is located in Palm Beach. Sen. Marco Rubio said there are two candidates Trump has presented him with that he would support, but that he didn't know if the president had interviewed them.
By and large, Republicans have defended Trump on this front. Sen. Thom Tillis, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said he didn't think it was "untoward" for the president to have conversations with his potential nominees. Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican who also sits on the panel, said he "can't imagine another system."
"This idea that the president can't talk to his prospective nominees I think is just foolish," Cornyn said. "Maybe if there was something further, like evidence of an improper conversation or commitment, then that would be different. But just to sort of say carte blanche the president can't talk to the people he's nominating for U.S. attorneys or judges is completely unreasonable."
Even in the midst of this controversy, Trump has lamented that he isn't able to intervene in the affairs of the DOJ, which he is encouraging to investigate his opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton.
"The saddest thing is that because I'm the president of the United States, I'm not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department," Trump told talk-radio host Larry O'Connor on Thursday. "I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI."