AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Checks and balances - they're the foundation of our democratic system of government. Now some conservative attorneys are borrowing the term as the title of a new group focused on the Trump administration. It was organized by conservative lawyer George Conway III. And if his name is familiar, it's because he's married to presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Marisa Maleck clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She's among those who have joined. Welcome to the program.
MARISA MALECK: Thank you so much for having me.
CORNISH: You're a member of The Federalist Society, and I understand most of the members of this Checks and Balances group are. What are some of the issues that were raised in terms of people feeling like this president needs a check? What are the legal episodes...
CORNISH: ...That raise concerns?
MALECK: So I think there are a number of them. For me personally, it was the independence of the criminal justice system. That really kind of lit a fire under me to get involved with an effort...
CORNISH: Is this about firing...
MALECK: ...Of publicly speaking out.
CORNISH: ...The attorney general?
MALECK: Yes, this is about firing the attorney general. And then beyond that, I believe that his replacement is an unconstitutional action by the president. The Constitution is very clear in Article 2 that the attorney general needs the advice and consent of the Senate as a principal officer. I think the reason why the president, you know, hasn't done this is that his pick has been particularly critical of the Mueller investigation and, it smacks to me, a favoritism that the president is using an unconstitutional action to sort of protect himself and to potentially stop or at least significantly curtail the scope of Mueller investigation.
CORNISH: In reading about this, you get the sense that people have been fearful of speaking up. What are the reasons why?
MALECK: Well, I think there's twofold reasons. One, I think a lot of people want administration jobs. And they're worried about frustrating the president because there's a sense in the White House that he very much values loyalism, that if you apply to the White House and you are on public record criticizing him, that you're not going to be able to get that job.
The second reason I think people are afraid to speak up is because he is pretty nasty to people who he perceives are his opponents. He's not beyond tweeting about individuals. So I think there's a dual sense of, you know, not wanting to get on the president's bad side and potentially protecting a future career opportunity in the White House or, you know, as a judge or another appointed official.
CORNISH: With a divided Congress, we are headed into a scenario where there may be aggressive checks and balances against the president. And was there any sense in the group, as nascent as it is, that people might be part of those efforts if something went as far as impeachment?
MALECK: It is a really nascent group. You know, and I, again, can't really talk for the other members. If impeachment was an option and it did seem like the House had grounds to impeach, personally I would be very interested in getting involved with an effort like that. And I imagine others might feel the same way.
CORNISH: But do you know what I mean? Like, is - we're at a point where lots of people are probably going to be suing the president (laughter) over various things. And...
MALECK: Yeah, absolutely. And...
CORNISH: And did you get the sense that people were like, you know, we should be speaking up more in those instances?
MALECK: I think absolutely people will want to speak up. You know, I think a good example of this is the fact that the president did just gets sued over revoking press credentials from CNN. And there was a sense that people would like to get involved in that effort - maybe if not joining and brief, at least speaking publicly about it. Certainly if there are other unconstitutional actions that the president takes, there are people in the group who stand ready to get involved.
CORNISH: At the end of the day, in this group, do you guys have the sense that this is about little more than checks and balances, that there is a real threat to the rule of law by this president?
MALECK: Yes, I absolutely believe that there is a real threat to the rule of law. And I think you've seen it by, you know, these little actions he's taking that are, you know, not not quite unconstitutional but certainly corroding constitutional norms. And I think over time, it's going to have a corrosive effect of people not respecting the way our framers intended our government to operate.
CORNISH: Marisa Maleck is a member of the new group Checks and Balances. She's also an attorney with King & Spalding. Thank you for speaking with us.
MALECK: Thank you so much.