WASHINGTON — The Republican senator who became an Internet sensation with his rapid-fire takedown of President Donald Trump's judicial nominee received an unexpected call — from the president.
“He said, ‘look, Kennedy, do your job. I'm not upset or angry. I'll never criticize you for doing what you think is right,’” recalled freshman Sen. John Kennedy of last week's phone conversation.
The public humiliation of Matthew Petersen, tapped by Trump to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, came last Wednesday at the hands of a 66-year-old Louisiana attorney with a penchant for folksy utterances. Kennedy grilled Petersen at a Senate confirmation hearing where the nominee struggled to answer basic legal questions.
The clip from the hearing, posted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., generated more than 8.5 million views on Twitter and dominated television coverage. Within days, Petersen had withdrawn his nomination.
“I didn't enjoy doing what I had to do,” Kennedy said in an interview. “Our job on Judiciary is to catch any mistakes that might have been made, and that's what I did.”
He described the situation in terms the average American could understand.
“Just because you've seen ‘My Cousin Vinny’ doesn't qualify you to be a federal judge,” Kennedy said in an interview earlier this week with New Orleans station WWL-TV.
Kennedy has a stellar academic pedigree that stands in contrast to the image of a Southern country lawyer. He graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University and was Phi Beta Kappa before getting his law degree from the University of Virginia. Kennedy received a Bachelor of Civil Law from Oxford University, where he graduated with first-class honors.
Earlier this year, Kennedy angered the parents of actress Lindsay Lohan, remarking on an IRS contract for Equifax after a massive security breach: “You realize, to many Americans right now, that looks like we're giving Lindsay Lohan the keys to the mini-bar.”
Originally a Democrat, Kennedy served 17 years as Louisiana state treasurer and made his name in state politics clashing with governors even if he was on the same political team.
After he won his Senate seat in December 2016, prevailing in a runoff to fill Republican David Vitter's seat, Kennedy sought to win over Louisianans of both parties.
“To a bear, we all taste like chicken,” he quipped.
The problems for three of Trump's judicial nominees, including Petersen, stand in stark contrast to the president's overwhelming success. The Republican-led Senate has confirmed 19 of Trump's judicial nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a record 12 appellate court judges.
Kennedy has been a rare Republican willing to criticize a few of Trump's nominees. Still, he has voted against only one nominee on the Senate floor.
“I think they're batting a pretty good batting average,” he said of the White House's nominees.
Kennedy initially withheld his support for Kyle Duncan to serve as a federal appeals court judge for the circuit that includes Louisiana. That upset groups opposed to abortion. On his radio show, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said: “I think he needs to hear from folks, especially those folks in Louisiana, because I will tell you, as a Louisianan, I don't think he's representing us well.”
Kennedy ended up announcing he would vote for Duncan and praised his performance after his confirmation hearing.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Kennedy's tough questioning of Petersen should be a teachable moment for the White House.
“I think that ought to hopefully caution the White House not to be sending over the nominees who don't have the experience they need in order to be U.S. judges,” Cornyn said.
The No. 2 Senate Republican defended the quality of most of Trump's nominees, “but there's been a few of them who seemed to have slipped through. If it were me, I'd say maybe we ought to reassess our vetting process.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Kennedy's standing as a Republican is one of the reasons his questioning was so effective. It could not be dismissed as partisan.
“The word is out,” Feinstein said. “I think the administration should take note of this.”
Liberal advocacy groups also have taken notice.
“It's clear that he's disgusted with the quality of nominees who have come forward,” said Daniel Goldberg, legal director for the Alliance for Justice. “I think it's telling that this is a Republican who is standing up for better, more qualified nominees. Hopefully people in his caucus will listen to him.”
Kennedy admits to being taken aback by the reaction to his grilling of Petersen. Many senators had already left the hearing by the time Kennedy asked a handful of district judge nominees whether any of them had “not tried a case to verdict in a courtroom.” Petersen raised his hand and Kennedy, who had worked as an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University Law School, began his rapid-fire cross-examination.
Kennedy said that he was unsure what impact the video will have on the nomination process going forward, though he suspects there will be greater scrutiny on a nominee's trial experience and blogging habits.
“I'm a freshman senator. The closest I get to the White House is a tour, so I don't know how it works over there,” Kennedy said.