Trump withdraws Treasury nomination of former U.S. attorney for D.C. Jessie Liu
By SPENCER S. HSU, JOSH DAWSEY, DEVLIN BARRETT | The Washington Post | Published: February 12, 2020
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday withdrew the nomination of former U.S. attorney Jessie Liu of Washington, District of Columbia, to a high-ranking Treasury Department post after being lobbied by critics of her office's handling of cases, including ones inherited from special counsel Robert Mueller III, two people familiar with the decision said.
Liu, 47, served more than two years in the politically sensitive post of top federal prosecutor in the nation's capital and was Trump's first nominee to the position, serving from September 2017 until Jan. 31.
In the job, Liu oversaw late-stage courtproceedings for top Trump aides and Mueller defendants, including deputy 2016 presidential campaign manager Rick Gates and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, as well as the November trial and conviction of longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone.
However, over the past two weeks, coinciding with Liu's departure, the U.S. attorney's office has changed its sentencing stances in both Flynn and Stone's cases, with prosecutors moving from stiffer sentencing recommendations to more lenient ones.
Emerging accounts of the circumstances surrounding Liu's departure from the administration cast those decisions in a fresh light.
The White House's move to drop Liu was disclosed Tuesday after all four career U.S. prosecutors handling the case against Stone withdrew from the legal proceedings when the Justice Department undercut their sentencing recommendation for Trump's longtime friend and confidant. Prosecutors on Monday said Stone should serve 7 to 9 years in prison.
Trump has been lobbied extensively against Liu by people who do not like her handling of the District office — particularly as it relates to the Mueller probe, an administration official said. The decision to withdraw the nomination was made Tuesday afternoon, the official said.
A second administration official confirmed Liu was notified at that time.
A third person familiar with the situation — who like the others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly — said Liu's nomination was opposed vocally by Barbara Ledeen, a conservative operative and Republican Senate staffer unhappy about Flynn's prosecution for lying to the FBI.
Ledeen's husband co-authored a book with Flynn and she was named in the Mueller report as a person Flynn contacted during Trump's 2016 campaign to obtain Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's private emails.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation, the person said Ledeen had made little headway before the recent storm over Stone's sentencing, calling it a turning point. Treasury officials believe Trump himself made the call to withdraw Liu because her confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee was set for Thursday, and Trump was concerned she would be asked about the case, the person said.
Ironically, Liu had no role in Stone's sentencing recommendation, having left office before it was sent to supervisors for approval, several people said.
Ledeen, a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer since 2000, said in an interview, "I'm a Senate staffer. I can't lobby either the Senate or the White House. I'm kind of amazed my name came up in this." She added, "Somebody likes to throw around my name."
Liu did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump's reversal was striking because Liu, who had served on his presidential transition team and was a Treasury appointee early in his term, was personally vetted by then-White House counsel Donald McGahn, and met with Trump in the White House before he first named her U.S. attorney.
Late last year, the White House announced plans to promote her, saying on Dec. 10 that Trump intended to nominate her to undersecretary of the Treasury Department for terrorism and financial crimes, to lead the administration's use of economic sanctions as a national security and foreign policy tool.
Liu's nomination was sent to the Senate on Jan. 6, and she told the U.S. attorney's office of plans to leave at the end of the month, people in the office said. Liu's departure at that time was seen as somewhat unusual because she had not yet received Senate confirmation for her new job before being replaced on an interim basis by Timothy Shea, a former counselor to Attorney General William Barr.
That same period saw a shift by Flynn's prosecutors. On Jan. 6, prosecutors recommended that Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., be sentenced to zero to six months in prison, emphasizing that defendants in similar cases served time behind bars. But in a follow-up filing Jan. 29, they made clear they agreed with Flynn "that a sentence of probation is a reasonable," citing cases where defendants were spared incarceration.
The filing came as Flynn continues his effort to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging government misconduct. Prosecutors did not explain in their filing the reason for the shift.
The Washington Post's Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.