Matthew Petersen, a nominee to the federal judiciary, has withdrawn from consideration days after a video clip showed him unable to answer basic questions about legal procedure, the White House confirmed Monday.
Petersen, nominated for a seat on the US District Court for the District of Columbia, is the third Trump judicial pick to withdraw in the past week amid criticism from Democrats and others about their qualifications.
White House spokesman Raj Shah confirmed that Trump had accepted Petersen's withdrawal but declined to comment further.
The video of Petersen that went viral Thursday captured five minutes of pointed questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) at Petersen's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee the day before.
It was posted on Twitter by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who wrote that it showed Kennedy asking Petersen "basic questions of law & he can't answer a single one."
As of Friday, the White House was standing by Petersen, with a spokesman saying that he was qualified and that "the President's opponents" were "trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations."
Petersen, a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, has been a member of the Federal Election Commission since 2008 but has no trial experience. His tenure on the FEC overlapped with that of now-White House counsel Don McGahn for about five years.
"While I am honoured to have been nominated for this position, it has become clear to me over the past few days that my nomination has become a distraction — and that is not fair to you or your Administration," Petersen wrote to Trump in a letter dated Saturday. "I had hoped my nearly two decades of public service might carry more weight than my two worst minutes on television. However, I am no stranger to political realities, and I do not wish to be a continued distraction from the important work of your administration and the Senate."
Until last week, Trump's record of getting judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate stood out as a bright spot for a president who has struggled for big wins on Capitol Hill. The Senate has confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, 12 circuit court judges and six district court judges.
Early last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told the White House to "reconsider" the nominations of two nominees, Jeff Mateer and Brett Talley, both of whom were reported to have endorsed positions or groups that embrace discrimination. A day later, both nominations were pulled.
Democratic senators had also questioned the qualifications of Talley, Trump's nominee for a US district court seat in Alabama, and Mateer, who was nominated to serve on the bench in the Eastern District of Texas.
During Wednesday's (US time) confirmation hearing, Kennedy started by asking Petersen and four other nominees who appeared with him, "Have any of you not tried a case to verdict in a courtroom?"
Petersen, under consideration for a lifetime appointment on the bench, alone raised his hand. Kennedy then bore down.
Had Petersen ever handled a jury trial? "I have not," the nominee responded.
Civil? No. Criminal? No. Bench trial? No. State or federal court? No.
How many depositions had he taken — fewer than five?
"Probably somewhere in that range," Petersen said.
Had he ever argued a motion in state court? Federal court? No on both counts.
Kennedy then asked the last time Petersen had read the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure — the standards that govern civil cases in U.S. district courts.
"In my current position," Petersen said, "I obviously don't need to stay as invested in those on a day-to-day basis, but I do try to keep up to speed."
The questioning continued for a few more minutes.
Petersen had been rated "qualified" for the bench by the American Bar Association.
Kennedy said Monday that "I feel bad for [Petersen], but I think he did the right thing, stepping — standing aside."
He added that he advised the president during a Friday phone call — a call Trump placed — that Petersen was not "quite ready to be a federal judge."
When asked, Kennedy would not criticise the White House vetting process, claiming that he has "no idea" how they make their selections and that "the track record of the White House is pretty good" when it comes to selecting and confirming judicial nominees.
But after having to withdraw three federal judge nominees in a week, he guessed that the White House "will investigate a little further" — particularly when it comes to a nominee's trial experience.
"And they will investigate a good more about people's blogging activities," Kennedy added — a reference to Talley, whose nomination was withdrawn last week after it emerged that he posted an defense of "the first KKK" online in 2011.
"There's nothing wrong with blogging, but you should be held accountable for what you say in a blog," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said that Trump was not upset with him during their conversation.
"He said look, Kennedy, do your job, I'm not upset at anybody," Kennedy said. "He just said do your job, I'll never criticise you for doing what you think is right."
Earlier Monday, Kennedy told New Orleans television station WWL-TV that he was surprised when he learned that Petersen had no litigation experience.
"Just because you've seen My Cousin Vinny doesn't qualify you to be a federal judge," Kennedy said, referring to the 1992 film comedy starring Joe Pesci, who played a lawyer fresh out of law school who represented two young New Yorkers put on trial in rural Alabama for a murder they did not commit.
Petersen's defenders argued that trial experience was not necessary and that he was a quick learner.
"I wasn't aware that being a trial lawyer was a precondition to being a district court judge, particularly in the District of Columbia," said Jan Baran, a partner at Wiley Rein who hired Petersen to his election law group out of law school and worked with him for three years.
"Judges in the D.C. court usually handle one of two types of cases; the most frequent would be cases involving administration agencies, which Matt Petersen has a great deal of experience with," Baran said.