President Donald Trump has nominated a slew of prospective federal prosecutors to fill top US attorney seats across the nation, but personally met with one prior to her selection in June – a move some former Justice Department and White House sources say sharply departs from past practice and more generally is at odds with the understood custom of insulating US attorneys from political influence.
Jessie Liu, the current deputy general counsel for the Treasury Department who Trump tapped to be the next US attorney for the District of Columbia, disclosed in her responses to the Senate Judiciary Committee that she met with the President as part of her interview process.
“I attended formal interviews at the Department of Justice, including with the attorney general,” Liu wrote in the Senate submission obtained by CNN. “I also interviewed with representatives of the White House Counsel’s Office and then met the President with the White House counsel.”
Liu added that she did not keep “detailed records” of her nominee selection process, but stated that “(n)o one has asked me to commit that I will be loyal to the President or the Attorney General, and I have not made such a commitment.”
Of the first seven US attorney nominees that Trump selected in June, only Liu said that she met with Trump. Other nominees described only meeting with Justice Department officials, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in their submissions.
Liu was unreachable by phone and email, and the Justice Department declined to make her available for an interview.
The White House did not return a request for comment.
According to multiple former US attorneys and several law enforcement sources CNN interviewed for this story, such a meeting with the President as part of the interview process would be virtually unheard of in past administrations.
All past US attorneys CNN spoke with described meeting with Justice Department officials, and in certain cases a liaison from the White House Counsel’s Office who was working on the nomination, but not the President.
“It’s wrong, and the reason it’s wrong is that it serves to undermine the rule of law,” said former US attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Joyce Vance. “This goes to the independence of the Justice Department” and “any effort by any president to diminish that is problematic.”
One former White House counsel who served in a Democratic administration said that the fact that Trump only met with Liu raises a question about the reason for the meeting, especially given everything else on his plate.
“There are 93 presidentially-appointed US attorneys, and it would be virtually impossible for a President to meet with all of them prior to nomination,” said the former White House counsel. “Given that, it is fair to ask why President Trump chose to meet only with the candidate for the US attorney in Washington, DC. It matters because it raises the legitimate question of why this candidate alone was singled out to meet with the President.”
But Donald Verrilli, former US solicitor general under President Barack Obama, said the meeting shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
“Based on my time at DOJ and White House Counsel’s Office, it doesn’t strike me as especially unusual to have a brief meeting (assuming that’s what happened here) with the President for candidates for the leading US attorney positions,” Verrilli said.
“And based on my enormous regard for Jessie, I wouldn’t be concerned here,” he added.
And a source familiar with Liu’s process says that her circumstance in Washington is unique given that she doesn’t have the typical involvement of home-state senators and would be leading the largest federal prosecutor’s office in the country.
President Barack Obama, however, did not personally meet with his picks to lead DC’s US attorney’s office in 2009 and 2015 prior to their nomination, according to sources familiar with the process.
Trump has not yet formally announced US attorney selections in some of the other high-profile jurisdictions, including the Southern District of New York or the Eastern District of Virginia.
News of Liu’s meeting with Trump comes at a particularly sensitive time in his presidency, as he unleashed a fury against high-level Justice and law enforcement officials in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, fired FBI Director James Comey in May, accused the special counsel investigating the Russia probe of conducting a “witch hunt,” and blasted members of the federal judiciary who have ruled against him over the last several months.
Those who know Liu say she is supremely qualified for the job.
She worked as an assistant US attorney in Washington and held several senior positions at DOJ, including deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division and deputy chief of staff for the National Security Division.
“She’s the real deal,” says one former law enforcement source. “She’s a real lawyer – the kind of person you’d want.”