US attorney withdraws from consideration for No. 3 spot at Justice Dept.

US Attorney Jessie Liu has withdrawn herself from consideration for the No. 3 spot at the Justice Department, spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Thursday.

If confirmed for the position of associate attorney general, Liu would have been the most senior woman at a Justice Department with a large portfolio, but CNN has learned her past affiliation with a progressive women’s organization derailed her pending nomination in the Senate and she pulled out of consideration for the job because she did not want to be a distraction at a critical time for the department.

Attorney General William Barr issued a statement Thursday praising Liu and saying she “would have made an outstanding associate attorney general.”

“Jessie Liu is one of the finest, most impressive people serving in the Department of Justice,” Barr said the statement, adding that he would appoint her to be chairwoman of his advisory committee.

While Liu was confirmed as US attorney for DC by voice vote in September 2017, her nomination as associate attorney general faced opposition from Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee, among others, making a successful path to confirmation a difficult prospect, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Barr personally made the case for Liu with Lee, but the Utah Republican refused to budge.

A person familiar with the situation said Liu’s previous role as the vice president of the National Association of Women’s Lawyers over a decade ago proved to be the sticking point for some conservatives. While Liu considered it a professional networking opportunity, the group spearheaded a letter against Justice Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court and has signed on to a number of legal briefs supporting a woman’s right to make their own reproductive choices.

Liu did not sign onto NAWL’s letter opposing Alito, but maintained a leadership role at the organization during the time it went out. In fact, she had signed a letter in support of Alito as a Yale alum. And ultimately, she resigned from her position at the group and did not rejoin.

Justice Department officials were livid at the reason for Liu’s nomination to collapse. They noted that she’s a well-regarded conservative, in some ways more conservative than Lee.

“Only a moron like Mike Lee would tank President Trump’s nominee, an Asian woman, for the department’s No. 3 job,” a senior Justice official told CNN. “This is beyond politically stupid.”

When reached for comment, a spokesman for Lee said: “Sen. Lee did oppose Mrs. Liu’s nomination due to her record on life issues.”

The No. 3 position at the department has a broad range of responsibilities, including oversight of the civil and civil rights divisions.

Jesse Panuccio, the principal deputy associate attorney general, held the post for a time on an interim basis once Rachel Brand stepped down from the role last year, but the Trump administration had appeared to have lost steam in selecting a permanent candidate until Barr took the reins at the department in February.

President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Liu as associate attorney general earlier this month, although the nomination was never formally submitted to the Senate, and it appears she did not have the votes to clear Senate confirmation.

Before Liu was confirmed to her current role as US attorney for DC, she had a rare meeting with the President — a move sources said at the time departed from past practice.