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Trump Judicial Nominee Withdraws From Consideration After Humiliating Senate Hearing

Matthew Spencer Petersen answers questions during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Matthew Spencer Petersen answers questions during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. C-SPAN

Matthew Spencer Petersen has withdrawn from consideration for a federal judgeship, the Associated Press confirmed on Monday. Petersen, who was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, made a name for himself last week thanks to his remarkably poor performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that hearing, Republican Sen. John Kennedy asked Petersen whether he was familiar with basic legal terminology. Petersen, who has spent just three years working on litigation, could not define any of the terms. The exchange went viral after Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse posted it on Twitter.

Petersen’s withdrawal ensures that a flagrantly unqualified nominee with little respect for the confirmation process will not receive lifetime tenure on the federal bench. In his withdrawal letter, Petersen noted that he will remain in his current job on the Federal Election Commission, where he has served since 2008, frequently joining with conservatives to block enforcement of campaign finance laws.

With help from the Federalist Society, Trump has restocked the judiciary at an impressive clip since taking office. But the Petersen debacle marks his third nomination to implode in the Senate. Kennedy pushed back against two other district court nominees, Jeff Mateer and Brett Talley, after the media reported on their controversial past comments. (Mateer called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan”; Talley apparently defended “the first KKK.”) Kennedy also complained that the 36-year-old Talley, like Petersen, was unqualified to serve as a trial judge, having never actually tried a case. Following pressure from committee chair Chuck Grassley, the Trump administration scrapped both nominations in December. Now Petersen has saved the White House the embarrassment of pulling his name—or getting voted down in the Senate—and withdrawn his nomination, as well.

Kennedy claims that Trump doesn’t mind that he’s been asking the president’s judicial nominees substantive questions. The senator told New Orleans-based WWL-TV that Trump called him on Saturday and said, “Kennedy, when some of my guys send someone who is not qualified, you do your job.”

This comment suggests that Trump may not understand the damage these unqualified nominees are doing to his broader project of filling the courts with hardline conservatives. Widespread outrage over Talley, Mateer, and Petersen has refocused progressives’ attention on the courts—and given them a rallying cry against the fast-tracking of Trump’s judges. Democratic politicians have long struggled to make their base care about judicial nominees. By sending nominees like Petersen to the Senate, Trump has solved that problem for them.

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