U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was forced out of his job Saturday afternoon after he bucked the Trump administration’s call for his resignation, ending a stint where he handled high-profile public corruption, Wall Street and terrorism cases and usually scored convictions.
“Today, I was fired from my position as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York,” Bharara, the top prosecutor in Manhattan, said in a statement. “Serving my country as U.S. Attorney here for the past seven years will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life, no matter what else I do or how long I live.”
A senior administration official confirmed that Bharara had been asked to leave.
The Trump administration pressed the remaining Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys to offer their resignations Friday, a seemingly abrupt move that surprised many — including the officeholders asked to leave.
“Preet indicated that he was confused about whether the memo applied to him,” a person briefed on the situation said Saturday. Acting Deputy Attorney General “Boente called him (Saturday) and told him all 46 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys were being asked to step down, which was what the memo said. Boente noted that [Bharara] serves at the pleasure of the president,” the source added.
Bharara responded by asking if Boente was firing him, prompting the acting Justice Department No. 2 official to say he was simply asking Bharara to resign, the source said. A short time later, Bharara posted on his personal twitter account that he had been fired.
It’s unclear what led to Bharara’s confusion about whether he was covered by the broad request for Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys to tender their resignations and whether the confusion may have resulted from the November Trump Tower meeting between Trump and Bharara, who emerged from that session to say he’d been asked to stay on.
Asked to explain why Trump changed his mind from November, the senior administration official said the administration decided to “follow past administrations and ask them all to resign.” Bharara had told associates in recent weeks that he planned to stay in the office and believed Trump supported him.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, among others, supported the decision, according to senior officials familiar with the matter. Trump has become obsessed over leaks in recent weeks, administration officials have said, and his allies have urged him to purge from the government Obama administration appointees.
Some noted that Fox News host Sean Hannity had a segment on DOJ holdovers Thursday night, and Trump is an avid watcher of Fox News. But administration officials said discussions over the resignations had been ongoing for weeks.
A senior White House official said they expected Bharara to resign Friday night and that the firing was “inevitable.”
Trump’s decision to renege on the apparent agreement was a shot against Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for whom Bharara worked as a chief counsel, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
A Schumer confidante disputed that characterization, saying he didn’t ask the president to keep Bharara on but was pleased when he said last year that he would.
“Preet Bharara has been an exemplary U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York,” Schumer said in a statement Saturday. “His relentless drive to root out public corruption, lock up terrorists, take on Wall Street, and stand up for what is right should serve as a model for all U.S. attorneys across the country. He will be sorely missed.”
Trump and Schumer have not spoken in recent weeks and have publicly clashed. “Chuck doesn’t have anything to talk to him about,” one person close to the senator said.
Trump spent Saturday at a golf course in Virginia, convening a lunch meeting with several members of his Cabinet.
Bharara told reporters after the November meeting with then President-elect Trump that he would stay on to serve the new administration. He’s currently wrapping up a criminal investigation into New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his associates and fundraising, though it remains unclear if anyone will be charged. He’s also in the midst of an investigation into associates of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, charging nine people with ties to the governor late last year.
Joon Kim, Bharara’s former top aide, has been made acting U.S. attorney, Bharara said in his statement. Kim was previously the head of the office’s criminal division before being made Deputy U.S. Attorney in July 2015.
Even with Bharara’s departure, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, the day-to-day work of the office—which would include its current investigation into de Blasio and any investigations the office may be involved with into Trump campaign activity—will go forward uninterrupted.
“We’re not putting the brakes on what’s being done,” the source said.
Bharara was known as something of a swashbuckling prosecutor in New York, taking on insider trading and terrorism cases and winning convictions against several top New York officials, including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
The news sent shock waves through New York politics, leaving lobbyists and aides to the mayor and governor trying to figure out who would replace Bharara — and whether the investigations would change based on his departure. The prosecutor had earned a begrudging respect in the state, sending subpoenas to some of the state’s most influential donors and scoring corruption convictions against a number of legislators.
The office’s investigation into de Blasio’s operation is expected to wrap in the next month, as prosecutors and FBI agents spent four hours with the New York mayor at a Midtown law firm last month.
Bharara had also struck fear into Wall Street financiers, scoring insider trading convictions.
He is widely rumored to have political aspirations — but has not publicly said if he would run for office.
Trump and his advisers have not identified replacements for the departing prosecutors, including Bharara.
The removal of U.S. attorneys has been politically fraught for years, with the midterm dismissal of eight chief federal prosecutors in December 2006 causing a firestorm that ultimately led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The timing and scope of such dismissals have often led to charges and counter-charges that they violated prior precedents. President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, asked for resignations in March 1993, but allowed many U.S. attorneys to stay in place until their replacements could be confirmed.
Resignations demanded after a presidential transition are not always accepted and U.S. attorneys appointed by a prior president — even one of another political party— sometimes serve well into the next president’s term.
Patrick Fitzgerald was nominated as U.S. Attorney for Chicago by President George W. Bush in 2001 and continued to serve in that capacity during President Barack Obama’s first term, much of that time pursuing a prosecution of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) for selling Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
Rod Rosenstein was nominated as U.S. Attorney for Maryland under Bush in 2005 and continued in that role throughout Obama’s two terms. Trump has now tapped Rosenstein to be deputy attorney general.
Colby Hamilton contributed to this report
Powered by WPeMatico