So much for avoiding the appearance of impropriety. President Donald Trump is personally interviewing United States attorney candidates, including those in New York and Washington.
Throwing out the rule book of tradition in this area is dangerous for many good reasons. The main one is that federal prosecutors in New York, Washington and possibly other jurisdictions might end up investigating the President or his aides or family members, for reasons relating to Trump’s political or governmental actions or to his many private businesses.
We know that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating possible Russian interference in the presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. As an appointee of the Justice Department, Mueller has every right to call upon the resources of US attorneys in any jurisdiction into which his investigation extends.
The President was severely burned by his heavy-handed interactions with former FBI Director James Comey, first offering to keep him on the job, then firing him and triggering a possible obstruction of justice investigation.
Comey claims the President demanded a “loyalty pledge,” a claim Trump denies. Trump was similarly ham-handed in his termination of Preet Bharara, the former US attorney for New York’s Southern District. Bharara is now a CNN Legal Contributor.
The President has the legal right to conduct such interviews because as the nation’s chief executive he is the nominal head of the entire Justice Department and is also the highest ranking law enforcement authority in the United States. US attorneys are technically his employees. Exercising this right, though, is an act of extraordinary arrogance by a President who should have learned a lesson from the Comey and Bharara fiascos.
The real question many will have is whether the President is using personal interviews to either demand or inspire loyalty from his newly minted federal legal top guns.
The US attorney spot in any state is an influential and prestigious post. Federal prosecutors are the most powerful law enforcement officials in their districts, sometimes supervising hundreds of lawyers, paralegals and investigators as they prosecute everything from drug dealers, organized criminals and terrorists to white collar criminals engaged in a variety of sophisticated financial frauds and schemes.
Many US attorneys become famous, as Thomas Dewey and Rudy Giuliani both did in New York, later running for such higher offices as mayor, governor or even President. The current attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, was once a US attorney, as was his predecessor, Loretta Lynch.
There is time-honored process in which the Department of Justice and local senate offices vet and interview candidates for these important positions. The process requires presidential involvement only at its conclusion, when the President makes his selection. An ethical United States attorney owes loyalty only to the United States Constitution and the cause of justice. He or she should never be required to pledge personal loyalty to the President. A US attorney remains bound by the law, as are all others residing within the jurisdiction of The United States.
The President has no reason to be personally involved in the nitty gritty of US attorney interviews. There are more than 90 US attorneys scattered throughout the states and territories. The President has better things to do with his time, and though it may be legal to use it on such interviews, it will only create the impression that he is trying to stack the system of justice with loyalists who will look the other way when his business, family or political interests are at stake.