4. Leonard Leo attacks George Conway's "Checks and Balances" group
In a rare public rebuke of an old friend, Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo is sharply criticizing a group of conservative lawyers called "Checks and Balances," helmed by George Conway, who argue President Trump is breaking legal norms.
- "I find the underlying premise of the group rather offensive," Leo told me. "The idea that somehow they need to have this voice because conservatives are somehow afraid to talk about the rule of law during the Trump administration."
- "And my response to that is, no, people aren't afraid, many people just don't agree that there's a constitutional crisis and don't agree with the people who have signed up with this group."
Leo spoke in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the Federalist Society.
Why it matters: Leo, who has known Conway for more than two decades, is one of the most influential figures in the conservative legal world. He is a key outside adviser to Trump on judicial nominations.
- Behind the scenes: Conway's actions have irritated Trump, according to two sources with direct knowledge. Conway's wife, Kellyanne Conway, is a top White House adviser.
I asked Leo if he saw any merit in Conway’s criticism. For example, Conway told Yahoo News he was "appalled" that Trump attacked Jeff Sessions because the Justice Department indicted two Republican congressmen ahead of the midterms.
- "I measure a president's sensitivity to the rule of law by his actions, not his off-the-cuff comments, tweets or statements. And the president has obviously had lots of criticisms about former Attorney General Sessions and about the department, but at the end of the day, he hasn't acted upon those criticisms.
- "He's allowed the department to have an awful lot of freedom and independence. ... He can say what he wants to say, but at the end of the day, words don't threaten the rule of law, actions do. I've been to 48 countries around the world. I know a constitutional crisis, and I know what a rule of law crisis is. Lots of countries have them. This country doesn't right now."
George Conway declined to comment. Peter Keisler, a former DOJ official under George W. Bush and member of Conway's group, said they have received an "overwhelmingly positive response," including from Federalist Society members.
- Responding to Leo's comments, Keisler said: "We do think the words of a president matter. When a president demands that the Justice Department investigate his political opponents and protect himself and his political allies, those words undermine confidence in the fairness of our criminal justice system and convey to the country a corrupt set of values and priorities."
- "And in any event, when a president fires his attorney general for failing sufficiently to respond to those demands, he's also crossed the line from words into actions."
Leo did have one "bone" he said he was prepared to throw Conway's way. "The one bone I would throw them, a tiny wish bone off the carcass," Leo added, "is that they credit the president with advancing the rule of law through his judicial appointments."
- Conway did tell Yahoo News that "we love the judges." And the administration "deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. I'll be the first to clap my hands for it."