One year after taking office and vowing to crack down on cross-border crime, President Trump has not nominated anyone for the top federal law enforcement post in Arizona.

Trump has taken twice as long as the two previous presidents to make a nomination for U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, which Department of Justice records show is now the only district in the country without a U.S. attorney.

The U.S. attorney for Arizona oversees prosecutions in one of the busiest federal districts in the country, with 170 attorneys prosecuting thousands of illegal-immigration and drug-smuggling cases every year.

Arizona also was the district where U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the arrival of the “Trump era” to the border and laid out the administration’s plans for prosecuting cross-border crimes.

But nine months after Sessions’ April speech in Nogales and 12 months after the presidential inauguration, the position remains vacant, according to Cosme Lopez, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.

The top official in the Arizona district is First Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth A. Strange, who joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in early 2008.

Strange became acting U.S. attorney when John S. Leonardo resigned as U.S. attorney in January 2017, but her tenure expired in November, per a 300-day limit mandated by federal law for acting officials.

Leonardo was among dozens of U.S. attorneys who resigned in January, as is customary with new administrations. Sessions asked 46 U.S. attorneys from the Obama administration to resign in March.

In many cases, they were replaced by acting U.S. attorneys. As their tenures expired across the country, Sessions made interim appointments to fill the positions.

“As a former U.S. attorney myself, I have seen firsthand the impact that these prosecutors have and it is critical to have U.S. attorneys in place during this time of rising violent crime, a staggering increase in homicides, and an unprecedented drug crisis,” Sessions said in a Jan. 3 statement as he made 17 interim appointments.

But he did not include Arizona among those appointments, leaving Arizona as the only district led by a first assistant U.S. attorney, according to Justice Department records.

The Justice Department did not respond to questions regarding the vacancy in Arizona.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on personnel prior to an official announcement or nomination.

Senators recommend nominees to president

U.S. attorneys are nominated by presidents and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to four-year terms, but they can be fired by the president at any time.

Traditionally, senators make recommendations to the president for nominees to their state’s federal judicial district or districts.

In April, Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake recommended Andrew Pacheco, the former head of the state attorney general’s criminal division who unsuccessfully ran for Maricopa County attorney in 2004, according to the Arizona Republic.

The offices of Flake and McCain, two of the most outspoken Republican critics of President Trump, did not respond to requests for an update on their recommendation.

So far, Trump has nominated 58 new U.S. attorneys, out of a total of 93 positions nationwide, records from the Senate Judiciary Committee show.

The Senate confirmed 45 Trump nominees and Sessions made 28 interim appointments.

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Another nine districts have acting U.S. attorneys, five districts have interim appointments from 2015 and 2016, four U.S. attorneys were appointed by judges, and one U.S. attorney was confirmed in 2015.

The daily activities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona continue at the federal courthouse in Tucson without an appointed U.S. attorney, but decisions on high-profile cases and the implementation of new prosecution policies usually are made by the U.S. attorney.

Key decisions

U.S. attorneys make key decisions in federal criminal prosecutions, such as deciding to file a second-degree murder charge against Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz in the 2012 cross-border fatal shooting of a 16-year-old boy in Mexico.

They also coordinate multi-agency investigations, such as the botched gunwalking operation by federal agents known as Operation Fast and Furious.

U.S. attorneys also are in charge of defending the federal government in lawsuits and filing civil lawsuits on behalf of the government.

During Strange’s tenure as acting U.S. attorney, federal prosecutors in Tucson ramped up prosecutions of first-time border crossers and those accused of assaulting federal agents, both of which were directives Sessions laid out in his Nogales speech.

It is unclear how Sessions’ other directives, such as increasing prosecutions for document fraud or Sessions’ recent decision to take a more-aggressive approach to prosecuting state-sanctioned marijuana customers, are being implemented.

Past nominations

The recent history of the U.S. attorney position in Arizona has been tumultuous, but the nomination process has followed a fairly consistent schedule, according to Arizona Daily Star archives, media reports and White House news releases in the National Archives.

  • President George W. Bush nominated Paul K. Charlton in July 2001, six months after Bush’s inauguration. The Senate confirmed Charlton in November 2001. He was one of eight U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration in 2006.
  • President Barack Obama nominated Dennis K. Burke in July 2009, six months after Obama’s first inauguration. The Senate confirmed Burke in September 2009. He resigned in August 2011 amid the investigation of Operation Fast and Furious.
  • Obama nominated Leonardo in March 2012. The Senate confirmed him in June 2012. He resigned in January 2017 prior to Trump taking office.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar