Trump judicial nominee withdraws after Hawley’s accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. AP

One of President Donald Trump’s nominees for the federal bench has reportedly withdrawn his nomination after Sen. Josh Hawley repeatedly accused him of anti-Catholic bigotry.

Attorney Michael Bogren bowed out of consideration for a federal district court position after weeks of intensifying criticism from Hawley and other Republican lawmakers who accused him of being hostile to religious liberty.

Hawley, a freshman Republican from Missouri who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, grilled Bogren last month over his legal defense of the City of East Lansing in a lawsuit brought by County Mill Farms. The business is owned by a Catholic couple barred from participating in a farmers market after the city found it to be out of compliance with an ordinance that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The owners had stated that they would not allow same-sex weddings to take place on their farm.

Hawley objected to a legal brief in which Bogren, representing the city, compared the situation to a business owned by a member of the Ku Klux Klan member refusing to serve African Americans and citing religious liberty as a justification.

“He could have given a vigorous defense to his client without stooping to calling this Catholic family equivalent to members of the KKK, comparing them to radical Islamic jihadists,” Hawley said Tuesday in his first public comments since Bogren’s withdrawal was reported.

“He said that the Catholic family was trying to dress up their argument in the shimmering robes of righteousness,” Hawley said. “I mean, he really went after them in a nasty way. He questioned the sincerity of their faith. He told the press that this Catholic family might as well just put out a sign that says only whites need apply.”

Bogren, who confirmed his withdrawal to The Detroit News, did not immediately respond to a phone call Tuesday evening. A Senate leadership aide confirmed Bogren had expressed his intent to withdraw as news of his decision spread throughout the Capitol late Tuesday.

The White House did not immediately comment on Bogren’s withdrawal, which is a blow to Trump.

Bogren’s cousin, Margot Cleveland, a prominent conservative lawyer and contributor to The Federalist, lamented his withdrawal and pushed back on the notion that it was a victory for religious liberty.

She said Bogren had made clear his words were legal advocacy rather than his personal views and that thearguments used against him set a dangerous precedent.

“Conservatives by condemning Mike have condemned other conservatives representing conservative causes,” she said on Twitter.

“I have seen people I respect calling Mike an anti-Catholic bigot. And that is shameful. You might disagree with his decision to represent a client, or the arguments made, but unjustly slandering a good man is something we should never do in defense of religious liberty.”

Hawley maintained that his objection was the way Bogren handled the case rather than his decision to represent East Lansing in the case.

During the hearing, Bogren pushed back on Hawley’s interpretation of his legal arguments and said that point he was trying to make was that if religious beliefs were used to legally justify discrimination on sexual orientation then they “could be used to try justify any other sort of discrimination whether it be gender or race.”

Hawley’s attacks on Bogren were echoed by other opponents to his nomination and spread throughout conservative media.

But Hawley also faced criticism from the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and other conservative outlets that said he had crossed line. David Bernstein, executive director of the Liberty and Law Center at George Mason University, said that Bogren’s arguments were standard and that Hawley had misrepresented them.

“Hawley chose to demagogue the issue, accusing Bogren of comparing traditional Catholic beliefs to those of the KKK, and more generally of exhibiting hostility toward Catholicism,” Bernstein said in a post on the Libertarian site

This is the second time Hawley generated national attention and controversy by aggressively questioning one of Trump’s judicial nominees.

In the previous case, Hawley ended up voting for Neomi Rao’s nomination for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals following weeks of pressure from GOP leaders and a private meeting in which Rao reassured Hawley about her conservative legal outlook.

“This gentleman, Mr. Bogren, I tried to give him the same opportunities at his hearing to say, ‘These comments I shouldn’t have made them. I don’t stand by them.’ I gave him multiple opportunities to do that and the difference was he would not do that,” Hawley said.

Bogren had been nominated by the White House with the support of the two Democratic senators from his home state, Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Sen. Gary Peters.

Hawley had been the most vocal critic of Bogren’s nomination. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina joined Hawley in opposition to the nomination, which cast doubt on the attorney’s ability to gain approval from the committee.

Bogren’s name had been noticeably absent from a list of more than 20 judicial nominations the committee is set to consider Thursday before his withdrawal became public.

“That may be the best way to go,” Tillis said when told of Bogren’s withdrawal.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, the committee’s chair, was circumspect about the future of his nomination when asked Tuesday morning. He said he needed to talk to Hawley about it.

Graham said he hadn’t heard of Bogren’s plan withdrawal shortly before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday evening.

McClatchy’s Emma Dumain and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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