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In Shocking Twist, GOP Committee Chair Repudiates Trump’s Worst Judicial Nominees

Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley questions witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Dec. 6 in Washington.
Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley questions witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Dec. 6 in Washington. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Two of President Donald Trump’s most controversial judicial nominees might not make it to the bench after all.

On Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley told CNN that he had encouraged Trump to withdraw the nominations of Brett Talley and Jeff Mateer. “I’ve advised the White House they ought to reconsider,” Grassley said of Talley and Mateer, whom Trump nominated to district courts in Alabama and Texas respectively. “I would advise the White House not to proceed.” (Update, 7:00 p.m.: On Tuesday evening, BuzzFeed reported that Talley has offered to withdraw his nomination.)

Grassley’s unusual move puts both nominations in grave jeopardy, and it may reflect a growing skepticism among Republicans toward Trump’s most outlandish judicial nominees. It does not, however, appear to signal broader GOP opposition to the administration’s choices for the federal bench. Shortly after Grassley disclaimed Talley and Mateer, Senate Republicans approved the appointment of Leonard Grasz, an unqualified and temperamental abortion foe, to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

Many Democrats, and at least one Senate Republican, have questioned both Talley and Mateer’s fitness for the bench. Talley is just 36 years old and has extremely limited legal experience. On his Senate questionnaire, he failed to disclose that he is married to Ann Donaldson, the chief of staff to the White House counsel—a likely conflict of interest. As BuzzFeed reported, he also declined to disclose message board posts that he appeared to have written under the name BamainBoston on a sports website, TideFans.com. These posts included a defense of “the first KKK” and repudiation of Roe v. Wade. BamainBoston also proposed a solution to the botched execution of death row inmates, arguing that the government should “just shoot them.” And he wrote of mass shootings: “My solution would be to stop being a society of pansies and man up.”

Mateer has claimed that transgender children are part of “Satan’s plan” and supported LGBTQ “conversion therapy,” a discredited practice. He has dismissed same-sex marriage as “debauchery” and argued that marriage equality will lead to federal persecution of pastors. This fall, he supported the Trump administration’s efforts to prevent an undocumented minor from obtaining an abortion.

Thus far, GOP senators have effectively rubber-stamped Trump’s selections, many of whom were chosen by the Federalist Society. In July, Republicans confirmed anti-gay blogger John K. Bush to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with no GOP dissent. And as recently as Nov. 9, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republicans unanimously approved Talley, though at that point his voluminous writings had not yet come to light.

In late November, however, Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy broke ranks to vote against Gregory Katsas’ confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
He became the first Republican to vote against one of Trump’s judicial nominees. After the vote, Kennedy declared that he would vote against Talley “in a heartbeat—twice, if I can.” He added that “the president of the United States is getting some very, very bad advice.” The next day, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Kennedy obliquely criticized Talley and Mateer, as well as Damien Schiff, another Trump nominee who called Justice Anthony Kennedy a “judicial prostitute.”

By that point, Kennedy had already voted for both Talley and Schiff in committee. But he has since disavowed Talley and may be wavering on Schiff. Now Grassley has joined Kennedy in repudiating Talley and Mateer. It is now unclear whether Talley has majority support in the Senate, or whether his nomination will even come up for a vote. Mateer’s nomination, meanwhile, is probably doomed given the staunch opposition of Grassley, the committee chairman. And while Schiff passed out of committee in July, he has yet to receive a floor vote. Yet the appointment of Leonard Grasz to the 8th Circuit shows that unqualified nominees who hold reactionary views may still receive Republican approval, just as long as they do not proclaim those views too coarsely in public.

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