WASHINGTON ― One of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees didn’t tell the Senate about a major conflict of interest in his bid to become a lifetime federal judge: his wife is chief of staff to White House counsel Don McGahn, who oversees the president’s judicial nominations.
As first reported by The New York Times, Brett Talley, a nominee to an Alabama district court seat, did not disclose in his questionnaire to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he’s married to Ann Donaldson, McGahn’s top aide.
The questionnaire specifically asks Talley, 36, to identify family members who are “likely to present potential conflicts of interest.” He did not identify his wife.
Neither Talley nor the White House returned a request for comment.
Talley, who is currently a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, has already sparked controversy with his nomination. He has only practiced law for three years. He has never tried a case in court. And he was deemed “not qualified” to be a judge by the American Bar Association, making him Trump’s fourth judicial nominee to earn the rare and abysmal rating by the nation’s top legal organization.
Christopher Kang, who oversaw the selection and vetting of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees for more than four years, said the “insanity” of Talley’s nomination extends to his job at the Justice Department, where he vets judicial nominees and helps them with their nomination paperwork.
“It is literally his job to help nominees fill out these forms honestly and completely,” Kang told HuffPost. “If this is how he approached his own nomination, what is he advising everyone else?”
Before he was a judicial nominee, Talley also made his political positions clear. In tweets that have since been made private, he said “Hillary Rotten Clinton might be the best Trumpism yet” and that she belonged in jail. A month after the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, he wrote a blog post titled “A Call to Arms: It’s Time to Join the National Rifle Association.”
None of these details stopped the Senate Judiciary Committee from advancing Talley’s nomination last week. All Democrats voted against his nomination.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, said Monday that the Senate shouldn’t hold Talley’s confirmation vote unless he explains why he didn’t tell them about his wife’s role in the White House. She noted that Donaldson is also a witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“Judicial nominees are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Talley’s nomination shouldn’t be considered by the Senate unless he answers questions about this glaring omission and clarifies matters concerning when he would recuse himself.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the committee, did not respond to a request for comment on whether he is having second thoughts about supporting Talley given his failure to disclose his wife’s job to the committee.
Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby (R) and Luther Strange (R) recommended Talley’s nomination to Trump. Strange said he stands by Talley.
“Brett Talley’s record reflects a nominee well-equipped to serve on the federal bench, and he has my full confidence and endorsement,” Strange said in a statement. “As my Deputy Solicitor General in Alabama, he applied his reverence for the Constitution and the rule of law to crucial cases, arguing multiple times before 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and building a reputation for professionalism.”
Shelby did not respond to a request for comment.
Talley is on track to get his Senate confirmation vote as soon as this month.
UPDATE: 10:30 p.m. ET ― White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave no signs that the president is backing off of Talley’s nomination.
“Mr. Talley served as Deputy Solicitor General for the state of Alabama, currently serves in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy and was recommended by Alabama’s U.S. Senators,” Sanders said in a statement. “He is more than qualified to serve in the federal judiciary.”
Another White House spokesman, who requested to speak anonymously, emphasized that Donaldson “is not involved in this judicial selection or other judicial nominations. The men and women the president nominates should be judged on their own merits.”