DOJ Lacks Key Senate-Confirmed Leaders 1 Year Into Trump's Presidency

Jan 3, 2018
Originally published on January 4, 2018 8:24 am

Nearly one year into the Trump administration, the Justice Department is operating without Senate-confirmed leaders in six of its most important units, including the criminal division and the national security division.

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We're going to spend some time now with NPR's Carrie Johnson, who has had a busy day tracking developments at the Department of Justice. Late this afternoon, President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort filed a lawsuit against the DOJ, which is prosecuting him for alleged money laundering. And as we near the one year anniversary of President Trump's inauguration, NPR has a new tally that sheds some light on what's happening inside the department. Six of the most important divisions have had no Senate-confirmed leaders.

Carrie, welcome to the studio.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with these vacancies you've been looking into. President Trump campaigned on a promise of restoring law and order. Can he do that with so many openings at the top of the Justice Department?

JOHNSON: Well, Ari, there's no candidate in charge at the Criminal Division which would presumably enforce this vow to protect law and order and preside over strategy against gangs and drug cases and the like. There's also no nominee at the National Security Division even though protecting national security is the top priority at the Justice Department and the White House.

Several other key units are operating with no Senate-confirmed leadership either. These are major posts - the Civil Division, the civil rights unit, the environmental unit, the Marshals Service, the DEA, the ATF and the Community Relations Service - last but not least, as one source of mine calls it, the Rodney Dangerfield of the Justice Department, the Tax Division.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's a long list. What do people inside and outside the Justice Department tell you about the implication of all these vacancies for law enforcement?

JOHNSON: Well, there are people in these top jobs. They're either career prosecutors and lawyers who've worked through a lot of different presidencies or people the Trump team has installed on a temporary basis. But those folks are not as free to chart their own vision for the Justice Department, to develop policy priorities or make bold calls about cases. For some observers who are wary of President Trump, that's a comfort, a good thing. But former Justice Department Inspector General Mike Bromwich told me this is not a recipe for good government. He said that he is not aware of any precedent for this many vacancies open for this long at the Justice Department.

SHAPIRO: Could some of this be an intentional move by President Trump to shrink the size of government, which is something that he's often talked about?

JOHNSON: You know, I don't think so. The White House has nominated people for many of these jobs, but for one reason or another, they just got bogged down in the Senate in 2017. The Justice Department tells me this nominee to lead the national security unit could get a vote early this year. But some of the other candidates are going to have to fill out paperwork all over again, maybe answer new questions from senators.

And just today, Attorney General Sessions named 17 current or former prosecutors to serve as interim U.S. attorneys. One of them is a guy named Geoffrey Berman, who will be U.S. attorney in Manhattan. That's interesting because he's going to be in charge of the jurisdiction that covers Trump Tower. And we know that President Trump met with Berman last year to personally interview him for this job.

SHAPIRO: Pretty unusual for a president to interview somebody up for a U.S. attorney position. Let's turn to this lawsuit by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. What can you tell us about that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, President Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort is suing the Justice Department, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Basically Manafort is arguing that Mueller exceeded his authority as special counsel. Mueller's supposed to be looking into Russian interference in last year's election. And the argument from Manafort goes, instead, Manafort's been charged with conspiracy and money laundering for lobbying efforts that have nothing to do with Russia and ended a few years ago.

Now, I called the Justice Department for comment about this, Ari. They say this lawsuit is frivolous, but the defendant is entitled to file whatever he wants. And it may in fact be a way for Paul Manafort to make his case in public despite this gag order the judge has imposed in his criminal case.

SHAPIRO: If we think that Mueller's charging Manafort is some strategy to get cooperating witnesses, how does Manafort's suing the Department of Justice play into that potential strategy?

JOHNSON: Well, Manafort may be speaking to his former boss Donald Trump into a possible jury pool in the District of Columbia rather than to any judge who may be hearing his case, either civil or criminal.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.