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Trump's Manhattan US Atty. Nominee Refuses to Say Whether He Would Recuse Himself

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Trump's Manhattan US Atty. Nominee Refuses to Say Whether He Would Recuse Himself

2020-06-26 13:06:17

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Jay Clayton (Image source: Public domain)

It wasn't a surprise to many when a House subcommittee hearing involving the Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr pick to replace the Manhattan U.S. attorney nearly turned into a mini confirmation hearing. The nominee was asked if he would recuse himself in ongoing investigations involving Donald Trump's allies, but he refused to answer.

Securities and Exchange Committee Chairman Jay Clayton appeared before a House Financial Services subcommittee. Democrats began questioning him about being selected for the Manhattan prosecutor job and why former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman was removed from the position.

Clayton noted that a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination would be "way down the road."  Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) pushed him to "commit, right here, to recusing yourself," but he refused to answer.

"What I will commit to do, which is what I commit to in my current job, is to approach the job with independence and to follow all ethical rules," said Clayton.

The U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York is pursuing investigations that involve Trump and his close associates, perhaps most notably, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Maloney found the timing of Clayton being tapped to fill the position "very suspicious."

Late last Friday, Barr announced that Clayton was nominated to replace Berman, who was resigning and that the U.S. attorney in New Jersey would be filling in on an interim basis until Clayton was confirmed. However, Berman said he wasn't resigning, as he was determined to make sure "important cases continue unimpeded."

It wasn't clear if Barr had the authority to remove a U.S. attorney on his own. Donald Trump then jumped in and fired Berman. This meant Berman's deputy, Audrey Strauss, would have to fill in on an acting basis and that it was out of Trump's and Barr's hands.

In a Thursday interview with NPR, Barr pushed back on the idea that Clayton will replace Berman to protect Trump. "Given the current environment, anytime you make a personal move, you know, conspiracy theorists will suggest that there's something, [that] there's some ulterior motive involved," he said.

"But I felt this was actually a good time to do it because I was not aware of anything that that should, in reality, give rise to that," he added.

The Thursday hearing was supposed to focus on the economy, but Clayton's nomination was the elephant in the room. He himself spoke of it in his opening statement, noting that the process was "multifaceted and uncertain" and that it didn't require his "current attention."

He has been called out for having minimal prosecuting experience, and he continued in the hearing to showcase his work with federal prosecutors in his current position. He also called attention to his associates who were formerly with the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office.

Many Democrats questioned Clayton on his role in turning over the position, whether he knew that Berman had never intended to step down and when the possibility of him replacing Berman was first discussed.

Clayton admitted that he brought it up with Trump and Barr the weekend before Berman was fired. He did not address whether he knew Berman would be forced out. He did, however, note he had been considering returning to New York with his family.

"Let me be clear about this issue: this was entirely my idea," he said. "This is something I had been thinking about and talking about with others as to where I could go."

Republicans came down on the Democrats in the panel for bringing the hearing to this point. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-WI) added a reminder to his fellow lawmakers that they were not there for a confirmation hearing. "If someone would like to participate in that, they are more than welcome to run for Senate."

But Clayton may have wished he had the congressman on his side in the Senate. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Senate Judiciary Chair, indicated after Clayton's nomination that he would honor the "blue slip" veto system. This gives home-state senators a voice in which nominations are allowed to go forward.

Democratic senators from New York are among others asking for Clayton to withdraw his name from consideration. Critics to his nomination are considering the many attempts to hamper investigations that affect Trump, his family, and his allies.

The House Judiciary Committee is currently investigating the "unprecedented politicization" of the Justice Department, particularly efforts that directly include Barr. The panel has been considering whether to pursue impeaching him.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said Thursday she would not supporting impeaching him, noting that the focus of the Democrats instead will be on ensuring Trump's loss on Election Day. 

"One hundred and thirty-one days from now, we will have the solution to many problems, one of them being Barr," said the speaker in an interview.

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