President Trump has personally interviewed multiple candidates for U.S. attorney positions, according to several reports, an unusual move in the typical appointment process for these jobs.
According to CNN and Politico, Trump has met with candidates for U.S. attorney jobs in New York and Washington, D.C. Although U.S. attorneys, who serve under the attorney general and represent the federal government, are presidential appointments, typically the process is run by the Justice Department in conjunction with the White House counsel’s office and the home-state senators. The president signs off on the final candidates but generally would not be involved in the interview process at all.
“It’s highly unusual for the president to interview a U.S. attorney candidate,” says Paul Coggins, U.S. attorney for Northern Texas from 1993-2001. “It certainly wasn’t my experience… [then-President Bill Clinton] never picked up the phone, he never called, he never asked any questions, nor did I expect it.” Coggins says he “wasn’t aware” of any other U.S. attorneys in his class having been interviewed by the president either.
Some people are concerned that the particular posts Trump seems interested in are significant. The Southern District of New York, for example, which Trump reportedly was involved in an interview for, has jurisdiction over Trump Tower, the epicenter of the president’s business empire. Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney there who was fired by Trump, called attention to the significance of the location in a tweet Wednesday. “It is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates for US Attorney positions,” he wrote, “especially the one in Manhattan.”
And in an interview with CNN, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said, “What’s most alarming about the President interviewing these particular candidates for US attorney positions is that these chief federal prosecutors are going to decide whether to indict Trump campaign advisers or staff if there’s collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians proven and possibly consider criminal charges against the President himself.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment for this piece.
Others wonder whether the president taking a personal stake in the process is an attempt to undermine the independence of the attorneys. “When I look at some of the other comments that have been made regarding the Department and ongoing investigations, it gives me concern,” says Jan Paul Miller, U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois from 2002-2005. (Trump has prodded the limits of the Justice Department’s independence since becoming president, including asking former FBI Director James Comey for “loyalty” before firing him.)
This isn’t to say a president interviewing U.S. attorney candidates would be illegal. U.S. law dictates that presidents “shall appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate” each U.S. attorney, and that the lawyers are all “subject to removal by the President.”
In a statement provided to TIME, the White House defended the legality of Trump’s actions. “These are individuals that the President nominates and the Senate confirms under Article II of the Constitution,” Kelly Love, a White House spokesperson, said in an email. “We realize Senate Democrats would like to reduce this President’s constitutional powers, but he and other Presidents before him and after may talk to individuals nominated to positions within the Executive Branch.”
Still, while legal, Trump becoming more intimately involved in these hiring decisions is unusual, and experts wonder what lies behind his decision. “If you’re only interviewing one, two or a handful, why would you be doing that?” asks Coggins. “What about those people or those districts caused the president to treat them differently from other U.S. attorneys?”