The abrupt departure of Deirdre Daly as the U.S. attorney for Connecticut gave new immediacy over the weekend to the legal and political parlor game of identifying not only who might be in the running as a successor, but who will guide the Trump administration in making the choice.
Had Hillary Clinton been elected, tradition would have dictated giving deference to the state’s Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. But Donald J. Trump, of course, is neither a Democrat nor a politician bound by convention. And there is no Republican holding federal or statewide office for his administration to consult in Connecticut.
“One of the great guessing games in the nation’s capital is how the Trump administration is going to fill the U.S. attorney jobs,” said Blumenthal, who added that the uncertainty extends to Republicans.
Republican State Chairman J.R. Romano said he has passed on the names of several interested lawyers, but he did not profess to know exactly how the White House intends to fill the vacancy or who could influence the choice for the political appointee who would oversee about 65 assistant U.S. attorneys. The office prosecutes federal crimes and files and defend civil cases on behalf of the U.S. government.
“I’ve had several people who have made inquiries with me,” Romano said.
Others, who asked not to be quoted by name, said a key question was whether Trump, a former Greenwich resident, would consult with Connecticut Republicans or rely on his New York circle of friends and family who might have a favorite for the post. There is a history of appointees with New York connections, including Daly and her immediate predecessor, David B. Fein, who had significant experience as federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
If the administration is looking for suggestions from GOP sources in Connecticut, they could check with Justin Clark, a lawyer from West Hartford who served as the deputy national political director of Trump’s presidential campaign and is now a deputy assistant to the president and the White House director of intergovernmental affairs.
Sources were uncertain if Benjamin Proto of Stratford, a lawyer who was the state director of Trump’s campaign in Connecticut, would seek the job. Asked if he was interested, Proto said only, “If the president of the United States called and asked me to serve, I would be happy to serve.”
Sources said at least three Republicans have expressed interest in the job: Susan Hatfield of Pomfret, a state prosecutor and former staffer for Newt Gingrich who was an early volunteer for Trump and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention; John Pavia of Easton, a lawyer and business executive who unsuccessfully sought the GOP state chairmanship in 2015; and former state Rep. John Shaban of Redding, a commercial litigator and the 2016 nominee for Congress in the 4th District.
The names of a dozen others have been circulated as rumored to be interested.
The Trump administration demanded the resignations Friday of 46 U.S. attorneys who were holdovers from the Obama administration, without providing any indication of how soon successors might be named. Michael J. Gustafson, a career prosecutor who was Daly’s first assistant, automatically became acting U.S. attorney.
Eight times in the past 50 years, a career prosecutor has taken over the post when a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney resigned near the end of a president’s term or after a change in administrations. It is not unusual for the career prosecutors to hold the post for months or a year or more after a change of administrations.
In Connecticut, the job has been a springboard for advancement in the law, though rarely politics. The notable exception was Blumenthal, who served as an appointee of Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, then was elected as a member of the General Assembly, state attorney general and U.S. senator.
Blumenthal’s immediate predecessor, Peter C. Dorsey, and successor, Alan H. Nevas, as U.S. attorney were Republicans later appointed as U.S. District Court judges. Christopher F. Droney, a Democrat who was U.S. attorney from 1993 to 1997, succeeded Nevas as a district judge and later was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Droney’s successor as U.S. attorney, Stephen C. Robinson, was appointed as a U.S. district judge in New York.
As a member of the Judiciary Committee, it would not be unusual for Blumenthal to at least be consulted on the appointment of his home-state U.S. attorney, even by a president of the opposite party. Such gestures can ease confirmation votes, though Blumenthal issued a statement Friday sharply critical of the mass dismissals:
“This sweeping discharge of top prosecutors can only undermine vigorous efforts to combat organized crime, drug dealing, public corruption, hate crimes, espionage, and other crimes that threaten public safety and national security.”
On Monday, Blumenthal said leaving the offices in the hands of career prosecutors is not a problem. But he feared that an extended period of uncertainty about the administration’s approach to law enforcement would be demoralizing, especially after Trump’s casual and unsupported accusation that President Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump’s phones during the campaign.
“The politicization of the Department of Justice degrades the ethos of independence and impartiality,” he said.
The path to become a U.S. attorney is varied, though being on good terms with a U.S. senator has helped.
Jon O. Newman and Stanley A. Twardy Jr. were U.S. Senate staffers to men who played roles in their appointments: Newman worked for Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, a Democrat, and Twardy for Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a Republican. Blumenthal had been a Senate staffer, a presidential assistant and a U.S. Supreme Court clerk before his appointment at age 31. Droney was an elected official in West Hartford and is the brother of John F. Droney Jr., a former Democratic state chairman who helped elect Joseph I. Lieberman as U.S. senator in 1988.
Newman was U.S. attorney from 1964 until 1969, when President Nixon took office. Newman was appointed a U.S. district judge by Nixon in 1971 and to the U.S. Court of Appeals by Carter in 1979. Twardy held the post from from 1985 until 1991, when he resigned after Weicker was elected governor and asked him to serve as his co-chief of staff.
Kevin J. O’Connor, a Connecticut Republican who was U.S. attorney and a top Department of Justice official during the administration of George W. Bush, once seemed positioned to influence Trump’s appointments to the Justice Department. He was recruited to the Trump transition team by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow U.S. attorney during the Bush administration.
But when Christie fell out of favor and was sacked as the head of the transition team, O’Connor was one of the team members also purged.