Politics

Schumer, Democrats claim outside Trump advisor helps rig the judicial nomination process

Key Points
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and several of his fellow Democratic lawmakers are scrutinizing one of President Donald Trump's outside advisors and his multimillion-dollar "dark money" network.
  • They argue that Leonard Leo's network has helped rig the process through which the president has pushed through a large number of judicial appointments. 
  • The move comes as the campaign to take control of the Senate heats up. The GOP has a 53-47 majority, but it is defending more seats than the Democratic Party in this fall's elections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., make their way to the Senate floor after announcing a two-year deal on the budget earlier in the day on February 7, 2018.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and several of his fellow Democratic lawmakers are scrutinizing one of President Donald Trump's outside advisors and his multimillion-dollar "dark money" network for its work on the president's judicial nominations.

Schumer, D-N.Y., along with Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., published a report on Wednesday that said that Leonard Leo, a conservative activist, and his influential network have rigged the judicial nominating and approval process. 

The report said it is the first of what will be several attempts by congressional Democrats to highlight what they argue are examples of "corruption and conflicts of interests now spreading around the Trump judiciary." The future efforts will include proposed legislation, although the report didn't expand upon what those proposed laws will look like. 

Whitehouse told CNBC after publication that one of their goals with future legislation is to focus on revealing anonymous donors that fuel outside groups on both sides of the political spectrum.

"They all have to go, they all have to disclose," he said. "This is not just for Republican leaning groups that have to disclose," he explained. 

The move comes as the campaign to take control of the Senate heats up. The GOP has a 53-47 majority, but it is defending more seats than the Democratic Party in this fall's elections. The Senate approves nominees to the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Four Republican-held Senate seats — in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine — have been deemed toss-ups by political analysts at the Cook Political Report.

The report also comes after Schumer and Whitehouse, along with other senators, co-signed a letter blasting Leo and his aligned group. 

Since Trump became president in 2016, he has turned to Leo to help guide his selections for judicial appointments, including to the Supreme Court. Leo supported Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch during the buildup to their confirmations to the high court. Leo's guidance has led to close to 200 Trump judicial nominations being confirmed by the Senate. 

The Democrats' report said Leo and the nonprofit conservative Federalist Society are a key part of an all-out effort to swing the courts toward nominees that are often supported by Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Leo was the executive vice president of the group before he created a new group, CRC Advisors, which is dedicated to promoting Trump's court appointees going into his reelection fight with Joe Biden.

Leo is still co-chairman of the Federalist Society, which focuses on conservative and libertarian legal theories. Democrats argue, however, that it has become a tool for Republicans and is directly aligned with Trump. 

"While the Federalist Society develops and promotes pro-corporate, pro-Republican donor legal theories, it has also become the linchpin of Republican efforts to select and confirm judges," the report said. 

Leo responded to Schumer and the Democrats' claims in a text message to CNBC, suggesting that they should be more focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic. 

"You know what they say, if you don't succeed at first, try and try again. Glad to see Senate Democrats are focused on Covid recovery, particularly those from New York," he said. 

Citing news reports, including one from 2018 by CNBC, the Democrats' study breaks down how the Federalist Society is funded by organizations linked to the Koch family and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It goes on to show a web of nonprofits and outside groups linked to Leo that have attempted to have an impact on the nomination process either through public relations campaigns or various forms of lobbying. These judicial groups are mainly funded by anonymous donors. 

The report also highlights the political operatives behind the large-scale judicial campaigns, such as the Judicial Crisis Network, and their ties to Leo. 

"JCN spent $7 million opposing President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. It then spent $10 million more to support the confirmation of President Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch (targeting 'vulnerable Democrat Senators'), and pledged another $10 million in advertising campaigns to support Brett Kavanaugh's nomination," the report said. 

VIDEO1:2901:29
Dozens of ‘serious’ complaints against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh are dismissed