Updated at 10: 17 a.m.
President Trump’s pick to serve as third in command at the Justice Department, overseeing health care and immigration cases, withdrew her name from consideration Thursday evening amid backlash from conservative lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Jessie Liu leads more than 300 prosecutors as the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., the nation’s largest such office. As an Asian-American woman, she would have added a measure of diversity to the Justice Department’s senior ranks — as well as serious prosecution chops. The Justice Department said Liu will remain in her current post and advise Attorney General William Barr as the head of a committee of other top federal prosecutors.
Two sources told NPR that the attorney general got into a “shouting match” with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, a key figure in opposing Liu’s bid. A spokeswoman for Barr declined comment on the heated conversation with a lawmaker from his own political party. For his part, Barr issued a statement filled with praise for Liu and insisting, “We will all benefit from her universally-regarded expertise and dedication to public service” in her role as an adviser to him.
Four lawyers familiar with the matter said the stumbling block for Liu was a broader concern about her conservatism — specifically, her stance on women’s reproductive rights. Interest groups had begun drafting letters to senators about their fears that Liu would not support restrictions on abortion. Another key factor: Earlier in her career, Liu had an affiliation with the National Association of Women Lawyers, which sent a letter opposing the nomination of Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Philip Alito, a son of the justice, works for the antitrust subcommittee in the Senate, a subcommittee that is chaired by Lee.
But Liu’s friends and former colleagues point out that she had actually signed a separate letter along with fellow Yale Law School alumni throwing her support behind Alito.
“The department and the administration were incredibly fortunate to have a person of Jessie’s ability to serve in that capacity,” a former Justice Department official told NPR. “She was incredibly qualified for this position, and it’s a real shame that they are not going to have the benefit of her leadership.”
Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Lee, said the senator opposed Liu “due to questions about her record on life issues.” Carroll said that Philip Alito “took diligent care to recuse himself from all staff conversations about Mrs. Liu with the senator.” And Carroll added that he was “unaware” of any tension between his boss and Barr.
Officials said there was no public sign the opposition from Senate conservatives stemmed from any action Liu may have taken during her tenure as U.S. attorney in Washington.
Meanwhile, senators are moving ahead to set a confirmation hearing date for the nominee to serve as deputy attorney general, the department’s day-to-day manager. The White House sent the nomination of Jeffrey Rosen to the Senate earlier this week. Rosen is a friend of the attorney general with management experience, but he has not prosecuted a case — complicating the deputy AG’s traditional purview as the referee on criminal cases and difficult issues that arise there.
It’s not clear whether the White House will find another person to fill the associate attorney general spot. That post has lacked a Senate-confirmed leader since Rachel Brand resigned in February 2018 for a legal post at Walmart.