Trump judicial pick blows off Democrats’ questions on Ukraine

An appeals court nominee has ignored a request from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but still advances

Steven J. Menashi during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on  September 11, 2019. He refused to answer questions on Ukraine, but his nomination was advanced to the Senate floor anyway.  (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

An appeals court nominee has ignored a request from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to say whether he played a role in White House events now at the heart of the accelerating House impeachment probe — and Republicans haven’t let that halt his move through the confirmation process.

The committee voted 12-10 along party lines Thursday to advance the nomination of Steven Menashi, who works in the White House counsel’s office. President Donald Trump picked him for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit based in New York.

[Trump, GOP senators throw themselves a party to celebrate judicial overhaul]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed cloture on the nomination Thursday afternoon. That move lines up a vote on Menashi early next week, just as the House holds its first public impeachment hearings focused on the events surrounding Trump’s controversial July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Democrats wrote Menashi six weeks ago with questions about his part in the White House counsel’s handling of a whistleblower complaint that jump-started the House impeachment inquiry.

Menashi gave them nothing back.

“He didn’t cite a privilege. He didn’t even provide the courtesy of responding,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said before the vote. “He just said, ‘You know, Judiciary Committee, you’re irrelevant. You rubber stamp my confirmation, so I’m not going to bother to answer.’ ”

Among the questions the Democrats want Menashi to answer: Did he work or advise on whether the whistleblower complaint could be turned over to Congress, and was he involved in any conversations about how to handle the complaint?

Democrats also want to know whether Menashi was involved in the decision, according to the whistleblower, to “lock down” a record of the call on a computer system usually reserved for sensitive national security information.

Democrats already had expressed concern Menashi was not forthcoming enough about his role in the Trump administration at his confirmation hearing.

Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas responded to criticism of Menashi, but did not directly address his decision not to reply about the whistleblower situation.

Lee said he found Menashi was not one of the more reluctant witnesses and did his best to answer questions.

“In some circumstances, he was advised that certain things were outside the scope of what would be appropriate testimony for him,” Lee said. “I don’t think he abused that. I’m quite confident he didn’t.”

The 2nd Circuit could play a critical role in litigation about Trump and the Trump administration. That appeals court last week denied the president’s request to block a state grand jury subpoena to an accounting firm for financial and tax records, a ruling his lawyers are expected to appeal.

Menashi is among the top targets for progressive groups trying to derail Trump nominees to the federal bench for some of his past writings and work, and they plan to use his refusal to answer the Democratic letter about the whistleblower complaint as more ammunition.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has said she opposes Menashi’s nomination. Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate.

Demand Justice announced after the vote that it will run digital ads targeting seven Republican senators in their home states, “urging them to oppose his nomination because of his potential ties to the Ukraine scandal.”

The ads ahead of the Senate floor vote will target Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa, the group said.

“Steven Menashi may have participated in the Ukraine coverup, and now some Republicans want to promote him from covering for Trump in the White House to covering for him on the federal bench,” Christopher Kang, Demand Justice’s chief counsel, said in a statement. “With this confirmation vote, we’ll see if Senators’ allegiances lie with justice or with Donald Trump.” 

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.