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Story highlights

Trump met with candidates for US attorney spots in NY and Washington, a highly unusual occurance for presidents

"It's kind of an extension of 'The Apprentice,' I guess," said Sen. Lindsey Graham

Washington CNN —  

President Donald Trump personally interviewed two candidates with connections to the law firms of close Trump confidantes for influential US attorney positions in Manhattan and Brooklyn, an unusual move that has prompted one senator to threaten their potential confirmations.

Geoffrey Berman, an attorney at the firm that currently employs Rudy Giuliani as a leading partner, met with Trump about a position atop the Southern District of New York, which covers Manhattan, two sources familiar with the meeting said. Ed McNally, a partner at the New York law firm founded by Trump’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz interviewed for the Eastern District of New York, overseeing Brooklyn, the sources said.

The two men appeared over the summer on a list of top candidates for the positions that was sent to officials involved in the vetting process before a formal nomination, according to another source familiar with the vetting.

US attorney candidates rarely – if ever – meet with the presidents who will nominate them. The New York posts in particular are drawing scrutiny because the Trump Organization and its headquarters at Trump Tower fall largely under the jurisdiction of the southern district, giving the local US attorney the authority to investigate cases related to the President’s vast dealings.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal called the move to personally interview the candidates “alarming” and “troubling” in an interview with CNN Thursday.

“What’s most alarming about the President interviewing these particular candidates for US attorney positions is that these chief federal prosecutors are going to decide whether to indict Trump campaign advisers or staff if there’s collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians proven and possibly consider criminal charges against the President himself,” the Connecticut Democrat said.

There is a “potential coercive and intimidating aspect of” the meetings, Blumenthal added, saying he has spoken to fellow senators about “potentially blocking any nominees who have been interviewed by the President.”

CNN previously reported that Trump’s nominee to head the US attorney’s office in Washington, Jessie Liu, met with the President before being nominated, according to a questionnaire she submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Liu was confirmed to the position by the Senate last month.

Preet Bharara, the former US attorney in Manhattan who was publicly fired by Trump in March, said that the move to personally interview candidates “does not look good.”

“I understand that he’s personally interviewed the potential applicants for US attorney in Manhattan and Brooklyn and one in Washington, DC – which happen to be places where Donald Trump has property and assets and companies – and not interviewed personally US attorneys for other positions,” Bharara said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” Wednesday. “I think that reasonably raises a number of questions.”

A White House official defended Trump’s meetings, telling CNN on Thursday that Senate Democrats are trying to “reduce this President’s constitutional powers” by complaining about him meeting with these candidates.

“These are individuals that the President nominates and the Senate confirms under Article II of the Constitution,” the official said. “We realize Senate Democrats would like to reduce this President’s constitutional powers, but he and other Presidents before him and after may talk to individuals nominated to positions within the executive branch.”

Liu, responding to questions during her confirmation on her meeting with Trump, said that no aspect of the meeting made her uncomfortable, according to a second questionnaire submitted to Senate judiciary committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein and obtained by CNN.

During the course of her nomination process, including in the meeting with Trump, which took place on April 21, Liu never discussed current or potential investigations involving the President, his family or his business, she wrote.

Berman and McNally both have long legal resumes and have spent time leading US attorneys offices. McNally is the former US attorney for the southern district of Illinois, which includes Chicago, and served in the Manhattan US attorney’s office when it was helmed by Giuliani. Berman was an assistant US attorney in New York’s southern district in the early 1990s.

Neither man has responded to a request for comment.

“An extension of ‘The Apprentice’”

Trump’s decision to fire Bharara drew scrutiny after Bharara said the President had previously told him he could stay in the job. At the time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had asked Bharara and 45 other US attorneys appointed under the Obama administration to resign. Bharara met with Trump during the transition as well.

During a Senate judiciary committee hearing Wednesday, Sessions appeared to confirm Blumenthal’s assertion that Trump was involved personally in candidate interviews, saying “yes, we’ve done quite a number,” though he later backtracked, adding, “I’m not sure I remember whether he had interviewed for New York but if you say so I assume so, and he has the right to for sure because he has to make an appointment and I assume everybody would understand that.”

Asked to expand, a Justice Department spokesman said he would not comment on personnel matters.

01:09 - Source: CNN
Senator fears Trump admin stonewalls congress

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a senior Republican on the judiciary committee, on Thursday defended Trump for interviewing the potential candidates, but said it was complicated by his business dealings in the districts.

“That does complicate the matter. But he’s the President of the United States who picks these people, so he’s going to get blamed (by Democrats) no matter what he does. So I think it’s a good thing that he’s willing to interview these people,” Hatch said.

Added Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Republican on the committee: “It’s kind of an extension of ‘The Apprentice,’ I guess.”

CNN’s Ashley Killough, Dan Merica and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.