As criminal probes advanced, Whitaker met with Trump, Kushner

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker met with President Donald Trump and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner on the morning of December 7, hours before federal prosecutors released three briefs recounting crimes and misconduct by Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and personal attorney Michael Cohen.

Cameron Joseph of Talking Points Memo saw Kushner and Whitaker boarding Marine One, the helicopter carrying the president, around 9:00 am. The meeting was improper because Whitaker will continue to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller for at least another month.

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Senate confirms Loretta Lynch as attorney general; Grassley and Ernst vote no

The U.S. Senate finally confirmed Loretta Lynch as attorney general today, more than five months after President Barack Obama nominated her and nearly two months after the Senate Judiciary Committee forwarded her nomination. The confirmation vote was held up in part because of a dispute over abortion-related language in a separate human trafficking bill. Senate Democrats filibustered that bill several times in March. Compromise wording that allowed both sides to claim victory led to a unanimous vote to approve the trafficking bill yesterday.

Lynch has had more than 50 senators backing her confirmation for some time, but whether her nomination could get to a final vote on the floor was another question. This morning, twenty Republicans joined the entire Democratic caucus to approve cloture on Lynch’s nomination by 66 votes to 34 (roll call). As expected, Iowa’s Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst voted against the motion; they’ve been on record for weeks opposing the attorney general nominee. According to a report by Alexander Bolton of The Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “worked quietly to round up more than 60 votes” for cloture in order to avoid “publicly validating” a rules change Democrats implemented in 2013, which allowed most presidential nominees to reach a floor vote with support from a simple majority of senators.

The Senate confirmed Lynch later today by 56 votes to 43 (roll call). The ten Republicans who supported her included four who are considered among the most vulnerable incumbents up for re-election in 2016. Grassley and Ernst voted no again. I enclose below Grassley’s floor statement explaining his opposition and Ernst’s official comment after the vote.

The three GOP presidential candidates now serving in the Senate–Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz–all voted against cloture on Lynch’s nomination. Paul and Rubio then voted against her confirmation, while Cruz was absent for that vote.

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Grassley, Ernst oppose Loretta Lynch for attorney general

U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch appears likely to be confirmed as the next attorney general after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, but both of Iowa’s U.S. senators will oppose her confirmation. Senator Chuck Grassley voted against Lynch on the Judiciary Committee, saying she had not convinced him that she “will lead the department in a different direction” from outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. In a statement I’ve posted after the jump, Grassley said that as “the nation’s top law enforcement officer,” the attorney general’s job is “not to be the President’s ‘wingman.’” He then cited several news headlines about Lynch defending President Barack Obama’s executive orders halting deportations for some undocumented immigrants.

Today Senator Joni Ernst confirmed that she will also vote against confirming Lynch. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

“I have some very serious concerns with Loretta Lynch,” Ernst says, “especially during her testimony when she had stated that she does uphold what the president has done and his decisions, especially when it comes to executive amnesty.”

Late last week, Ernst and Grassley voted against the “clean” bill to continue funding the Department of Homeland Security, stripped of language opposing Obama’s immigration policies.

Three Republican senators (Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, and Jeff Flake) voted to forward Lynch’s nomination from the Judiciary Committee to the full Senate. Assuming all 46 Democrats are present for her confirmation vote, she will need only one more GOP supporter to reach the 60-vote threshold.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Iowa’s U.S. Representatives Steve King (IA-04) and Rod Blum (IA-01) signed a letter urging Senate Judiciary Committee members to reject Lynch. To my knowledge, Representative David Young (IA-03) did not sign the letter.

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Will judicial confirmations grind to a halt under Chairman Grassley?

As a 34-year incumbent, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley will have a choice among leading the Senate’s Finance, Judiciary or Budget committees when the new Congress convenes in January. In a statement to the Des Moines Register yesterday, he said he will pick the Judiciary Committee.

“Oversight is too often overlooked as Congress focuses on new legislation […] So, anybody who knows my efforts in this area will understand that the Judiciary Committee’s work will reflect that sentiment. My goal is to promote transparency and accountability and restore the committee’s role as a true check on the massive and powerful federal bureaucracy.” […]

“The Judiciary Committee should not be a rubber stamp for the president,” he said. “However, as I have as ranking member, I will work to confirm consensus nominees. Factors I consider important include intellectual ability, respect for the Constitution, fidelity to the law, personal integrity, appropriate judicial temperament, and professional competence.

“Judges are to decide cases and controversies – not establish public policy or make law,” he said.

Sounds like under Grassley’s leadership, the Judiciary Committee will approve few, if any, of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees for a vote on the Senate floor. I would guess that only conservative-leaning judges will meet the new chairman’s standard for “consensus.” Other political observers have reached the same conclusion (see also here). In recent years, Grassley and his fellow Republicans blocked confirmation votes on numerous judicial nominees, including everyone the president picked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals regardless of qualifications. The standoff prompted Senate Democrats to sharply curtail the use of the filibuster on presidential nominations. Grassley and other Republicans warned at that time that someday they tables would be turned.

Taking a contrarian view, the non-profit Alliance for Justice argues here that “no one should give up on judicial confirmations in a Republican-controlled Senate.” I’ve posted excerpts from that piece after the jump, but it’s worth clicking through to read in full.

I also enclose below Grassley’s official comment on U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, whom the president has tapped to be the next attorney general. Grassley has been a vocal critic of outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. The Judiciary Committee holds confirmation hearings on attorney general nominees.

UPDATE: Added more comments from Grassley on his role and the role of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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