Reed, Whitehouse in war of words with Trump team over US attorney, judgeship

Senators allege 'deeply disturbing' behavior; White House sees 'a political stunt'

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci/Alex Brandon)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A war of words has broken out between the Trump administration and Rhode Island’s two U.S. senators over how to fill two powerful posts, the vacant positions of U.S. attorney and federal district judge.

In a letter sent Monday to White House counsel Donald McGahn and obtained by Eyewitness News, Democratic Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse accused the Trump administration of failing to consult them and thereby violating a long history of cooperation between the White House and the senators on filling those positions, which require Senate approval.

They noted a previous letter they sent to McGahn on May 9 that asked him “to consider our state’s traditionally senator-controlled recommendation process” for both those two positions and the post of U.S. marshal.

“We are disappointed that we have yet to receive a response of any kind from the administration to our letter or any outreach at all regarding these positions,” they wrote.

The senators also asserted, without naming names, “it has come to our attention that deputies of the administration have directly contacted potential candidates for U.S. attorney positions in our state.” They described that alleged contact as “deeply disturbing.”

A White House official disputed the two senators’ assertions, alleging that Whitehouse canceled a phone call to discuss the vacancies with the administration that was supposed to happen Monday. While Whitehouse serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the official said he cited the need to also loop in Reed, Rhode Island’s senior senator.

The administration official, who refused to be named, said their letter arrived on the day of the canceled call. “When a senator cancels a phone call the same day he sends a press release masquerading as a letter, you know it’s just a political stunt,” the official told Eyewitness News.

“We have not interviewed a single person for a single position in Rhode Island because we wanted to consult the senators first,” the official continued. “The letter attacks some unnamed ‘deputies’ who the senators claim contacted candidates. We have no idea who these phantoms are. The senators certainly haven’t told us.”

Reed spokesman Chip Unruh and Whitehouse spokesman Caleb Gibson shot back in a joint statement: “It is interesting that the Trump administration, which has repeatedly decried leaks, decided to leak this correspondence.”

“The fact is Senators Reed and Whitehouse have repeatedly reached out to them in good faith and the Trump administration has not made these nominations a priority,” they continued.

The job of Rhode Island U.S. attorney has been vacant since March, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions requested the resignations of the state’s top federal prosecutor, Peter Neronha, and dozens of his other Obama-era counterparts nationwide.

And on the federal bench, former U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi’s seat remains vacant after the Republican-led Senate declined to act on President Obama’s 2015 nomination of Public Defender Mary McElroy to fill the seat. McElroy was chosen with the support of Reed and Whitehouse, and they have repeatedly said they would still like to see her appointed.

“Rhode Islanders deserve a voice in filling Rhode Island judicial vacancies and Mary McElroy deserves to be renominated because she is eminently qualified and was unanimously approved by the full Republican Judiciary Committee last year,” the senators’ spokesmen said in their statement.

The Senate has historically had a “blue slip” tradition, giving senators veto power over appointments in their home states. (The name refers to a blue piece of paper the senators must return in order for a nominee to move forward.) Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has given mixed signals about whether he will continue to honor the tradition as Republicans complain Democrats are refusing to green-light Trump’s appointments.

Speculation about who will be Rhode Island’s next U.S. attorney and federal judge – as well as about who will influence the White House’s picks – has been rampant since Trump won last November. The last time Rhode Island had its two Senate seats held by Democrats while the White House and Congress were controlled by Republicans was 1954.

“Rhode Island’s senators have effectively and efficiently made successful recommendations to presidents of both political parties – even when our state’s political delegation was politically split,” Reed and Whitehouse argued in their May 9 letter, referring to the period from 1977 to 2006 when one of the Senate seats was held by Republicans John and then Lincoln Chafee.

State Rep. Robert Nardolillo, a Coventry Republican who is running against Whitehouse in next year’s election, quickly criticized the pair on Twitter:

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook